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Spellbinding: the classical roots of magical spells in Harry Potter

Spell book

It is no secret that the Harry Potter series is heavily influenced by the classics. JK Rowling studied Latin as a subsidiary subject at the University of Exeter, and often draws upon classical myth, rhetoric, and nomenclature in her writing. In particular, Rowling usually draws her magical words from classical Latin, and many of the translations shed light on the effects (both magical and literary) of these incantations. To celebrate Rowling’s imminent birthday, let’s investigate the Latin behind these spells, charms, and curses.

Accio: this summoning spell literally means ‘I summon’ or ‘I fetch’

Confundo: this spell, used to confuse an opponent, literally means ‘I stir up’, ‘I confuse’, or ‘I bring an end to by upsetting’. The range of translations reflects the scope of the spell, which can be used either to effect mild or fatal confusion

Crucio: this translates as, ‘I torture’. This spell is used to cast the Cruciatus curse, a torturing spell that is one of the three unforgivable curses in Harry Potter.

Wingardium Leviosa: this is a basic levitation charm. The first word is a blend of the English ‘wing’ with a creative adaptation of the Latin comparative of arduus, meaning ‘steep.’ The second word also requires a stretch of linguistic imagination, being an adaptation of the Latin levo, meaning ‘I lift’. There has been some disagreement as to the pronunciation of the spell.

Diffindo: a severing charm, which translates to the English ‘I split’.

Expecto Patronum: One of the most important spells in the series, it is used to summon a corporeal animal (called a patronus) as a sort of spirit-guardian against soul-sucking Dementors. Literally, it means ‘I wait for a patron’ or ‘I hope for a patron’. Patron is the closest single-word English translation of the Latin patronus, which more generally means ‘an influential person who has undertaken the protection of another’. This spell is particularly resonant with Harry, who, having lost his father when he was a baby, spends much of the series seeking a patronus.

Expelliarmus: a disarming charm. The word is a combination of the Latin expellere, meaning ‘to drive or force out’, and arma, meaning weapon.

Finite Incantatum: the main counter-spell, used to negate other spells. Finite is the Latin imperative plural (used when giving a command to a group of people) of the word ‘to end,’ and incantatum is the passive participle of the Latin incanto, meaning ‘having been bewitched’.

Imperio: there is no Latin verb imperio, although the root imper-, can be seen in Latin words such as imperator (ruler), imperatum (command or instruction), and impero (`I demand’). This word casts the Imperius curse, another of the three unforgivable curses, which when used effectively allows the caster to control the target. “Total control…” explains Professor Moody to his Defence Against the Dark Arts demonstration, after he’s cast an imperius curse on a spider, “I could make it jump out the window, drown itself, throw itself down one of your throats…”

Lumos: a mock-Greek adaptation of the Latin lumen, meaning ‘light’. Used as a wand-lighting charm.

Petrificus Totalus: a full body-binding curse. This is another of Rowling’s blends. Although petrificus is not a Latin word, the Greek borrowing petra means rock. The suffix –ficus, which ascribes a sense of making or becoming to its headword, is very common in Latin. In Modern English, this sense of the affix –fic is still present in words like terrific, certificate, or mummification. Totalus is an alteration of Latin totalis ‘total’. Often used to comic effect.

Sectumsempra: another blend. Sectum, the perfect passive participle of the verb seco, literally means ‘having been severed’. Sempra is an alteration of the Latin semper, which means ‘always’ or ‘continuously’. This curse, invented by Severus Snape in his youth, allows the wand to be used as a sort of long distance sword, following the movements of its holder to slash its target.

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