May 2020

I love the Harry Potter books. I’ve read all of them twice. I’ve seen the movies. I’ve listened to the audio books on trips in the car. I’ve actually been to Hogwarts−via the Warner Brothers Studio in Leavesden, England.

Why, you ask, would a grown woman be so enamored with a children’s series? One reason is the language. It’s one of my favorite things about the Potter books.

I’ve always loved languages. I enjoy the challenge of learning a new one when I travel−even if I only master a handful of useful phrases. I have favorite words. Language is especially important in the Harry Potter books. Not only are there fun facts and clues hidden in the names of many characters, but because J. K. Rowling actually invented new words. There is an entirely new lexicon that now exists because of these books. To someone like me, that is just plain awesome.

The Gryffindor Common Room
The Gryffindor Common Room

If readers look carefully at some of the characters’ names, they’ll discover clues to their personalities as well as secrets they’re trying to keep. Three individuals whose names betray their character are Draco Malfoy, Remus Lupin, and Voldemort.

We know from our very first encounter with Harry’s nemesis that Draco Malfoy is bad news. His first name is connected to the word draconian, which refers to extremely harsh and severe laws, and to the Latin draconem, a reference to dragons or large serpents. (Draco is sorted into Slytherin House, whose symbol is a large snake.) His last name Malfoy comes from the old French mal foi, which means bad faith. Putting all of this together, we have an untrustworthy, unyielding, sneaky kid. Throughout all seven books in the series, Draco Malfoy will be Harry’s enemy at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Magic.

In book 3 of the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, we are introduced to a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher−Professor Remus Lupin, a man with a potentially dangerous secret. If we look at his name we can guess what Lupin is hiding. The name Remus means unknown and refers to the mythological twin who founded Rome with his brother Romulus. So, we have a clue to the double-character of the DADA professor. The second indication is in his last name, which comes from the Latin lupus, meaning wolf. In addition, the French word for wolf is loup, which is quite similar to Lupin. Fudge a couple of letters, put it together, and we have Professor Lupin who works hard to hide his second nature−a werewolf.

Harry’s greatest enemy, in fact, the evil that lies at the core of the series, is the character called Voldemort. French-speakers throughout the world knew immediately the most profound desire of this character. Breaking the name into 3 separate words, we have vol de mort. In French, this means flight from death. The character Voldemort is horrified of dying and goes to extreme, criminal, and terrifying lengths to avoid death. This is one of the threads that is woven through the entire series.

The Potions Classroom


If we consider the magic spells, there is a definite logic in the way J. K. Rowling created them. Some are direct translations from other languages and others rely on Latin suffixes. We’ll look at three: Accio, Expelliarmus, and Wingardium Leviosa.

Accio is a summoning spell. Witches and wizards use it to call an object which is located at some distance away from them. The object then flies to the person casting the spell. Accio is a direct translation from Latin meaning I summon.

Expelliarmus is Harry Potter’s signature spell. The witch or wizard uses it to force an enemy or opponent to drop the weapon they have in their hand. Breaking the word into 3 parts, we get: expel arm and a Latin-inspired suffix –us. Expel means to force or drive out, to eject. Arm, of course, refers to a weapon. I don’t know this for a fact, but my guess is the additional letters in Expelliarmus are to make the sound flow properly. The suffix gives it an otherworldly feel.

The meaning of Wingardium Leviosa is evident at first glance. The spell begins with the word wing with the obvious connotation. The second word starts with the root lev. In the Romance languages French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, any action that connotes an upward movement and the words meaning to raise up, to lift up, to rise all begin with lev. The spell Wingardium Leviosa is cast to make an object or person fly or lift up from the ground.

Dumbledore’s Office

Finally, there are the words J. K. Rowling invented. Until 1997, when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the British title) was published, dozens of words did not exist. Quidditch had never been played, no one had ever heard of Muggles, and nobody understood what it meant to apparate.

J. K. Rowling said in an interview that for some reason she wanted the wizarding sport to start with a Q. She tried dozens of words and none sounded right to her until she rhymed quidditch with pitch, the British word for the cricket playing field. She liked the sound of the two words together and the name of the sport was born.

Muggles are non-magic people. From a witch or wizard’s point of view, they might be seen as mugs. In Britain, London in particular, a mug is an easy mark, someone who is somewhat stupid or gullible. Muggles are most definitely at a disadvantage in the Harry Potter books.

When someone in the wizarding world apparates, they magically leave the place where they are and appear somewhere else. This activity is fraught with danger and can only be legally performed after the witch or wizard has turned 17 and has taken a test. Again, looking at Latin and the Romance languages, the root of this verb is associated with appearing. In French, for example, to appear is apparaître. It’s a small step to the word apparate.

The last item I’d like to mention is pure conjecture on my part. I noticed that the main thoroughfare in Hogsmeade, the crowded and bustling street filled with all kinds of intriguing shops, is called Diagon Alley. Putting the two words together, we get diagonally. Something that is just fun to think of.

The 12 foot tall queen in the chess game from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
I imagine J. K. Rowling had a lot of fun coming up with all the names of food, especially “sweets”
Getting on to the platform at King’s Cross Station

One of the many exciting shops in Diagon Alley
I’ve been fascinated by owls since I was a teenager. Eeylop’s Emporium would be my first stop.
The Shambles in York, England. I’ve always wondered if J. K. Rowling based Diagon Alley on this medieval street. The entire street sits at an angle. Not a straight wall in sight.