Those who know me personally are already aware that I, like many, have been sucked well and truly into Harry Potter fandom (I have my sister to blame/thank for this). Although many people have disregarded it as “just a kid’s story”, like I once did, I’ve found that the more I read these books, the more intricate details I have noticed about them. From a critical perspective, it’s interesting to note how Rowling relies upon duality and opposition, and upon parallels and foreshadowing, to construct the narrative of her series. In this series of posts, I will briefly discuss a few of these, referring to relevant volumes from Rowling’s text where necessary. I’m not going to get all technical; I just thought this would be fun. I’ll dabble in semiotics and structural analysis, undertake a few explorations of certain themes, and unite a few fan theories along the way if I can.
So, in case it wasn’t already obvious, this post is full of ***spoilers*** (although I doubt there’s many people left in the world who don’t have a basic working knowledge of the plot by now!)
Part 3: The Hidden Magic of Rowling’s Etymology
Right then. Let’s get one thing clear right from the outset – J.K. Rowling is a full-on language nerd. Every element of the wizarding world she has constructed in her books is deliberately and cleverly named. Although the dualities she creates in her invented words are mostly rooted in her etymological knowledge of French and Latin, others are simply wordplays or nods to certain concepts, places and/or ideas. The more you look, the more you find!
In this post, I aim to point out just a few of the marvellous word games that Rowling has been playing with her readers. The consideration will be split into the following categories: place names, species names, character names, spells, and magical objects.
Many of the place names in Harry Potter are invocative of the atmosphere, character and/or inhabitants of the location they describe. It’s no mistake that 24 Privet Drive, home of the Dursleys, takes its name from a particularly rigid form of hedge, or that Sirius’ house, 12 Grimmauld Place, is, indeed, a very grim and very old place. For me, The Burrow invokes a mental image of rabbits (although a ‘burrow’ can refer to the underground home of many different creatures), which fits well with the description of the Weasleys, who have “more children can they can afford”, and whose home has been repeatedly enlarged and extended to create more space for the growing family.
Another interesting couple of street names are those of Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley. Knockturn Alley, a place you would not want to be seen and where ‘dark’ magical artefacts are sold, becomes ‘nocturnally’ when you say it quickly (i.e. ‘by night’). Diagon Alley becomes ‘diagonally’, or possibly ‘diagonal ley’ (perhaps a reference to ley lines, which some believe connect ancient sites of Britain and have magical powers). Diagon Alley is, of course, a magical street, hidden from the Muggle population, but running straight through a highly urbanised and well-populated area of London.
Other references are more subtle. For instance, the wizard prison Azkaban, which is meant to be inescapable but is subject to a number of breakouts, shares similarities with Alcatraz (a high security prison from which a number of inmates broke out in June 1962 – later the subject of a book by J. Campbell Bruce and a film directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood).
Obviously, many of the creatures which Rowling refers to already exist in mythology (trolls, centaurs, merpeople, and so on). However, in the cases where Rowling is responsible for naming a species or subspecies for herself, she often uses clever little etymological references designed to make geeks like me smile!
Take, for instance, the term ‘Squib’. In the Harry Potter series, this refers to a child with no magical powers born to magical parents. This term originates from the colloquial phrase ‘damp squib’, which denotes a firework or explosive that has failed to go off due to a fault.
The term ‘Muggle’ is also based on a colloquialism – ‘mug’, an English slang term for fool or idiot – as confirmed by the writer herself in an interview last year.
Another interesting term that Rowling uses is ‘Animagus’ – referring, of course, to a wizard who is able to transform at will into an animal. ‘Magus’ is another word for wizard, and so by combining this with the prefix ‘ani-‘ (with ‘anima’ being a clear reference to the change to animal form), she manages to give this process a name which aptly and succinctly describes it in its entirety.
OK, in terms of character names, I could do this all day, as there are so many which are significant. I’ve just chosen a few of my favourites here though. The first and foremost name to be considered has to be Lord Voldemort’s. It’s important to note that, just like English, there are a number of homonyms in French (words that sound identical when pronounced but have different meanings depending on the context of use). ‘Vol’ is one of them. It can mean either ‘flight’ or ‘theft’, and so ‘vol de mort’ can be translated as either ‘flight from death’ or ‘theft of death’ – both of which are rather appropriate to describe his character’s main goal and motivation.
Sirius Black also has a rather significant name. Sirius is a star linked with the star system Canus (canine, of course, being another way to describe the species of dogs like the one he transforms into). When he transforms into Padfoot, he is black, just like his name. The name Sirius can be translated from the Ancient Greek as “scorching” or “glowing”, referring to the fact that it is the brightest star in the sky. Sirius’ character is known for being popular, charismatic and talented (before the turn of events which lead to his incarceration).
Another interesting name is that assigned to Ludo Bagman, the head of the Ministry’s Department of Magical Games and Sports who cheats the Weasley twins out of their winnings for betting on the Quidditch World Cup. ‘Ludo’ is Latin, and can be used to describe ‘play’ and ‘sport’, but also refers to deluding or deceiving someone when used in certain contexts. This impression of deceptiveness is emphasised by the surname ‘Bagman’, as ‘bagman’ was the term used to describe early US mobsters who collected money from illegal gambling and for protection rackets. Interestingly, his name may be an abbreviated form of another Latin phrase – ‘victor ludorum’ – which means ‘winner of the games’ (as he was a highly successful Quidditch player).
I rather like Olympe Maxime’s name, too. ‘Olympe’ is invocative of both ‘Olympians’ (i.e. those who surpass all others in scope) and of Mt. Olympus (the largest mountain in Greece). This first part of her name could refer to both her physical size and her magical abilities (which Hagrid notes are impressive). ‘Maxime’ is French for ‘principle’, and Madame Maxime is the ‘principal’ of Beauxbatons School. Combined, she is the ‘giant principal’ – which is a pretty apt description!
The examples go on and on. Arabella Figg, who is mentioned in passing as a harmless, cat-loving, “batty” old lady in the first four novels but reveals herself in Book 5 to be a Squib who has been surreptitiously keeping a watchful eye on Harry for years on Dumbledore’s behalf, also has a rather appropriate name. ‘Figg’ symbolises the fig leaf (that which keeps certain things secret and covered up – for instance, in the Bible, it is used to hide Adam and Eve’s nakedness).
Broderick Bode – member of the Ministry’s Department of Mysteries – does, too. A ‘bode’ is a warning or omen. His mental impairments do, indeed, serve as a warning of what Voldemort is trying to do in Department of Mysteries in Book 5.
Fawkes – Dumbledore’s loyal pet phoenix – could be named for Guy Fawkes, the English conspirator whose failed attempt to blow up Parliament on November 5th 1605 is still celebrated every year on Bonfire Night… bonfires and fireworks seem like a fitting celebration for a phoenix, don’t you think?
Seriously, I could do this all day. I mean, have you noticed, for instance, that if you switch the first letters of Crabbe and Goyle, you get ‘Grabbe’ and ‘Coyle’ (‘grab’ and ‘coil’), which is exactly what a snake does to its prey. Both boys are in Slytherin House (represented by a serpent), and are in the grips of Lord Voldemort’s dark magic.
A number of objects in the Harry Potter series also have etymologically significant names. For example, the name ‘Horcrux’ is formulated from two French words: ‘hors’ (meaning ‘outside’) and ‘crux’ (meaning ‘cross’). As the cross could be understood to be a cultural symbol of death (e.g. Jesus’ crucifixion, and the multiple instances where decorative crosses adorn grave sites), the phrase ‘Horcrux’ could suggest being outside of, and beyond the reach of, death. As Jesus’ crucifixion is inevitably related to his resurrection, the cross can also be a symbol of life or rebirth, and so ‘Horcrux’ also could suggest life or regeneration outside of the physical body. This, of course, is its purpose – to make it impossible for Voldemort to be killed, and to allow him to resurrect his physical body.
Another object with an intriguing name is the ‘Pensieve’. The word ‘pensive’ refers to a deep, serious, and often brooding, thought process, and is derived from the French word (same spelling), which signifies thought itself. This is significant, given that the purpose of this object is to allow the user to siphon off, and sort through, their own thoughts and memories. This process of sifting through thoughts is further reinforced in the etymology by the suffix ‘-sieve’, as a sieve is a device used for exactly this (albeit in cooking or such like, rather than magic).
The potion ‘Veritaserum’ gets its name from the Latin ‘veritas’ (meaning ‘truth’), with ‘serum’ being another word for ‘potion’. Again, there are a multitude of examples, and I’m just covering a few here.
I could dedicate an entire post exclusively to looking the names of spells in Harry Potter, but again, I’ve highlighted just a few of my favourites here. Pretty much all of the spells in Rowling’s series have solid reasoning behind them, and so if you look closely, you’ll start to notice more and more just how apt the spell names are.
I think the most important one to discuss first off is ‘Avada Kedavra’. This is the spell to perform the killing curse – one of the three Unforgiveable Curses. There are arguably two translations which could be offered for this. The first, ‘abra kadabra’ (yes, that magical phrase all magicians say before making something disappear) is Arabic, and translates as ‘let the things be destroyed’. Another interesting similarity noted is to an Aramaic phrase, ‘abhadda kedhabhra’, which means ‘disappear like this word’. Both phrases essentially refer to destruction of some kind, and Rowling’s spell appears to be a combination of the two.
‘Patronus’ means ‘protector’ in Latin, so the spell ‘expecto patronum’ (to summon a Patronus, which is a protective being that can drive away Dementors) can be translated as ‘expect a protector’. Apparation – the magical ability to disappear and reappear at any location – is also taken from the Latin ‘appareo’ (meaning ‘to become visible’).
‘Nox’ – the spell to extinguish light from the tip of the user’s wand – is Latin for ‘darkness’ for ‘night’. ‘Accio’ – the summoning charm – is also Latin, meaning ‘to call to or summon’. Expelliarmus – the disarming charm – is a combination of the Latin ‘expel’ (to force or drive out; eject forcefully) and ‘arma’ (weapons). Impedimenta – used for obstructing pursuers – is based on ‘impedio’ in Latin (meaning ‘to hinder’).
I’m probably missing hundreds of great ones – why not suggest a few in the comments below?
More to come in further posts in this series!
(Images: Warner Bros. Studios)