The Etymology of Harry Potter Spells: Where Do They Come From?

A black magic wand laying on the spellbook.
14 December 2022

Harry Potter universe was first introduced in fantasy novels written by British author J. K. Rowling. The books have gained worldwide attention, won multiple awards, and sold more than 500 million copies in many countries.

Why do people love Harry Potter so much? Opinions may vary from person to person, but it’s probably because of the perfect mix between children and adult fiction & between genres such as fantasy, adventure, and mystery. Harry Potter fans are people of all ages because it has a timeless quality that isn’t restricted to just one target audience.

In its rich universe, the Harry Potter series also introduced the concept of spells that wizards and witches can cast with a magic wand.

However, have you ever wondered about Harry Potter spell etymology? For example, what does Lumos mean? Or what is Avada Kedavra’s meaning?

What’s more, are there any fictional languages spoken in Harry Potter? If so, what are they?

What is the meaning of the house names in Harry Potter?

In this article, we will explore all these questions and find the answers to them. Foremost, we will go through the magic spells existent in the Wizarding World and see what they mean when traced back to their Latin roots.

So, pour yourself some butterbeer, and let’s go!

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A spell book with magic dust and light coming out of it.

Latin Roots of Spells in the Wizarding World

The Harry Potter books introduced various spells that have been later popularized by the films directed from 2001 to 2011.

In this section, we will explore why Latin roots are used to create spells in Harry Potter.

Why is Latin present in the Harry Potter Universe?

Latin is one of the oldest languages that are in use today, even though officially considered one of the dead languages. It was first spoken by Romans in ancient Rome and later used as a language commonly used throughout Europe during and after the Roman Empire. It had influenced the formation of many European languages, especially the Romance ones.

Latin is also an important root of the English language (especially scientific vocabulary). This means that many English words can be traced back to Latin roots. This way, all who speak English may have it easier to understand each spell introduced in the Harry Potter books.

And considering that the Wizarding World is somewhat old-fashioned, we can assume that the spells didn’t evolve that much for many centuries.

On a more realistic note, J. K. Rowling claimed that the spells have Latin sounds primarily because of her classical studies.

Still, a lot of Harry Potter vocabulary for the spells is based on Latin in a rather loose way. Technically, they are incorrect, but we can still track their meaning in ancient Latin.

A quill laying on the desk in front of a bookshelf.

Different languages in Harry Potter

It’s not just Latin phrases and words in the Harry Potter vocabulary. Some spells are based on ancient Greek, French, Aramaic, and even other languages.

Those exceptions are present especially when it comes to the etymology of names in Harry Potter.

To give the best example, Lord Voldemort made his title as an anagram of his older name, Tom Marvolo Riddle. French translation of this name is somewhat between: “Lord who flew from the death” or “Lord who stole from the death”.

 

A green snake present on the dark background.

Are there fictional languages in Harry Potter?

The answer to that question could be, not really. Each wizard and witch uses the “human language” of the country they were born to.

There is, however, a small exception to this rule. It is said in the Harry Potter series that snakes have their own language, a parseltongue that was first learned by Salazar Slytherin. Later, this “language” was spoken by both Lord Voldemort and Harry Potter.

As for the other magical languages in this universe, some are suggested to exist, e.g. the ones spoken by some fantastic beasts. However, J.K. Rowling never fully expanded this idea.

So, even though there are no fictional languages in Harry Potter per se, there are a few people who could speak parseltongue.

However, today, we want to focus on a different aspect of Harry Potter vocabulary: Magic spells!

A magic office with bookshelves, animal skulls and ink bottle.

The Meaning of Spells in Harry Potter Series

We already have a grasp of the linguistic process behind the spells Rowling created. We know that the spells are based on actual human languages, so it’s easy for us to track the meaning of each spell in the magical world.

Let’s see them!

What does Lumos mean?

The Lumos spell is one of the most popular spells in the Harry Potter universe. Wizards use it to light up dark spaces.

If you’re wondering what Lumos mean, the answer is quite straightforward. It is derived from the Latin word “lumen,” which means “light.”

This is not a correct Latin word per se, but it’s nevertheless quite intelligible, as we have English words with the same morpheme, e.g.: illumination, luminate, or even lucid.

What does Nox mean?

As we are in the topic of the spells that affect light, we should also mention Nox, the spell that turns down the light.

It’s quite straightforward, as it simply means “the night” in Latin.

What does Alohomora mean?

Alohomora is one of the first spells used in Harry Potter series. It unlocks doors and locks.

But what does Alohomora mean? It’s actually a bit tricky, and apparently, this is the case where there are no Latin roots.

It’s a combination of two words, Aloha and Komora. The word Aloha means “hello” and “goodbye” in the Hawaiian language while Komora means “to open” in the Japanese language.

So, we can predict Alohomora means something around “Welcome, I open [the object]”. It may have something to do with paying visits to neighbors and friends in the Wizarding World.

What does Accio mean?

The word “accio” comes from Latin and means “I call” or “I summon”.

If you’re wondering what Accio means in the Harry Potter series, it is an object’s summoning spell.

It was first introduced by Rowling in the 2000 novel, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. In this book, it’s used to summon objects from a distance.

What does Expecto Patronum mean?

Expecto Patronum is a spell that creates a guardian spirit from the caster’s own magic. It can be used to ward off spirit enemies, but it also has other uses. For example, it can be cast as light, warmth, and protection to those in need of it.

The Patronus is an especially powerful defense against Dementors because they cannot feed on happiness, which an animal Patronus provides in spades.

This spell is a literal and correct Latin sentence for “I await a protector”.

What does Petrificus Totalus mean?

Petrificus Totalus is a curse that immobilizes the victim, causing them to be unable to move any part of their body. The spell causes an individual’s muscles to contract and become rigid like stone, rendering them immobile.

The term comes from the Greek word “petra”, which means “rock” and the Latin word for “to make/to turn”.

So, it quite literally means “to turn into a rock”.

What does Expelliarmus mean?

Expelliarmus is a spell that causes the victim’s wand to fly out of their hand, along with some kinetic energy, which knocks them off balance.

It is one of the most basic spells taught at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and requires hardly any magical ability.

Expelliarmus is a spell made up of the Latin prefix “ex”, meaning “out of,” and the verb “pello”, meaning “to strike.” The latter part “armus” consists of the arm or hand, but in this case, we should assume it has the latter, middle-aged meaning. Then, this word started to mean taking any weapon in hand, “to arm oneself”.

So, to sum up, the word Expelliarmus can be translated to mean: to disarm someone, to throw away their weapon.

What does Sectumsempra mean?

Sectumsempra is a curse that was invented by Severus Snape, and that was first introduced in the Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince book.

It is one of the very darkest spells in the whole Wizarding World, as it is meant to hurt people by giving them cut wounds over and over again.

And so, the name reflects just that. It consists of two words with Latin origin: “sectum” – “to cut/cut” and “sempra” means “always/continually”.

Thus, the meaning of this spell is “the eternal cutting” or “to cut forever”. Quite dark indeed!

Avada Kedavra meaning

This is no doubt this is the darkest spell in the Harry Potter series. Used mostly by Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters, it’s used to kill people.

Rowling claims she created this spell out of a popular “Abra-Kadabra” saying in Aramaic which means “Let the thing be destroyed”.
This horrible spell has taken the lives of Albus Dumbledore, Fred Weasley, and of course the parents of Harry Potter.

Interestingly, Harry himself was struck with this spell but hasn’t died. The mystery of “the boy who lived” was finally explained in Harry Potter: The Deathly Hallows and left many fans astonished.

A spellbook with a gleaming blue circle around it.

Are Harry Potter spells different in different languages?

Almost universally, no. Although, there are some minor changes in some language versions. E.g. instead of “Expecto Patronum”, it’s “Spero Patronum” in French.

It makes sense, as most European countries have been taking after Latin words up to some extent. Thus, we can predict that the spells with Latin roots would be existent in all of them.

A young wizard in front of castle battlements.

So, as we know the meaning of all the most important spells in the Harry Potter series, let’s find some other language trivia of the Wizarding World.

The four houses at Hogwarts represent the different qualities of its members. These qualities are represented by the following traits:

  • Gryffindor: Courage, bravery, and daring
  • Hufflepuff: Hard work, dedication, and loyalty
  • Ravenclaw: Intelligence, wisdom, and creativity
  • Slytherin: Cunning, ambition, and resourcefulness

Each house has its own noble history, and each was founded by one of the four founders of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

This serves as a clue to what they mean.

Gryffindor: Meaning

The name is directly taken from its founder, Godric Gryffindor. His name in turn takes from the magic beast, the gryffin, and the French “d’or” for gold.

So, we could say that the House of the Courageous loosely translates to “The Golden Gryffin”.

Ravenclaw: Meaning

Similarly, this House’s name takes after its founder, Ravenna Ravenclaw. The meaning of her surname is quite straightforward.

As we can guess, it is to be understood that the Ravens’ bright minds are as sharp as the claws of this majestic bird.

Hufflepuff: Meaning

Founded by Helga Hufflepuff, this House takes its name after her.

Obviously, it’s not an easy task to decipher what this name means. We can assume that it is meant to resemble soft and soothing sounds. This in turn could symbolize the relaxed and friendly people who belong to Hufflepuff.

Slytherin: Meaning

Just as in all previous points, Slytherin takes its name after the house’s founder. In this case, it’s the infamous Salazar Slytherin, who knew the tongue of the snakes.

His surname has something in common with this reptile, too: It means more or less to slide somewhere with making no noise, or in a sly manner. No coincidence, as most of this House’s members are considered cunning and shrewd.

This is all on the meaning of the House names in Harry Potter. Did you know all the trivia behind them?

Harry Potter Houses in different languages

When we are on this topic, let’s also mention that there are some language versions of Harry Potter that decided to change the names of Houses in Hogwarts.

See all examples below:

English

Gryffindor

Ravenclaw

Hufflepuff

Slytherin

French Gryffondor Serdaigle Poufsoufle Serpentard
Brazilian Portuguese Grifinória Corvinal Lufa-lufa Sonserina
Italian Grifondoro Corvonero Tassorosso Serpeverde
Romanian Cercetaş Ochi de Şoim Astropuf Viperin
Welsh Llereurol Crafangfran Wfftiwff Slaffenog
Czech Nevelvír Havraspár Mrzimor Zmijozel
Norwegian Griffing Ravnklo Håsblås Smygard
Finnish Rohkelikko Korpinkynsi Puuskupuh Luihuinen

How do you like the sound of Harry Potter Houses in different languages? Do some of them appeal more to you than the original ones?

A hand holding a magic wand on the dark background.

Harry Potter spell etymology: Conclusion

What is your favorite spell? Do you wish there were more fictional languages in Harry Potter to further expand its universe?

Well, anyway, we hope you learned a thing or two about the spells used by Hogwarts students. Be sure to check our other articles about languages: both real and fictional!

And if you’re a language passionate in general or you simply love traveling, consider checking out our store with handheld translators. Who knows, maybe someday they’ll help you understand parseltongue too… And it’s just one step from becoming a wizard altogether!

In a nutshell:

The Harry Potter series introduced the concept of spells, which have Latin roots. These spells have various meanings, and the Latin roots can help trace them. For example, Lumos is derived from the Latin word “lumen,” which means “light” and Nox from the Latin word for “night”. Alohomora is a combination of two words, Aloha and Komora which mean “hello” and “goodbye” and “to open” respectively. Accio means “I call” or “I summon”, Expecto Patronum “I await a protector”, and Petrificus Totalus “to turn into a rock”. Expelliarmus means “to disarm someone, to throw away their weapon”, Sectumsempra “the eternal cutting”, and Avada Kedavra “Let the thing be destroyed”. The spells in Harry Potter have a deep meaning and are essential to the story.

FAQ:

What languages are used in Harry Potter for spells?

The spells in Harry Potter are based on Latin, ancient Greek, French, Aramaic, and more languages.

What language is Avada Kedavra?

Avada Kedavra is a phrase that comes from the Aramaic language. It literally means “Let the thing be destroyed.”

Are Harry Potter spells just Latin?

Harry Potter spells are based on more languages than just Latin. They also come from ancient Greek, French, Aramaic, and more languages.

Is Expecto Patronum Latin?

The “Expecto Patronum” spell comes from the Latin language. “Expecto” means “I’m ready and waiting” and “Patronum” is a word signifying a “mighty protector.”

What is the etymology of Wingardium Leviosa?

Wingardium Leviosa is a mix of English and Latin. “Arduus” means “high, steep,” and “levis” means “light in weight” in Latin. “Wing” is an English word, in this case meaning “to take flight.”

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Robert Faber autor

Robert Faber

Robert is an avid traveler and a fan of new technologies. He can cook well, but never has enough time to do so and he ends up complaining about most meals. A regular at the gym.

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