10 Latin Language References Hidden in Harry Potter

istock (background) / Warner Bros (Harry Potter)
istock (background) / Warner Bros (Harry Potter)

"I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics," J.K. Rowling said in a 2011 commencement speech at Harvard. "They might well have found out for the first time on graduation day." Before the future Harry Potter creator arrived at the University of Exeter in 1983, Rowling’s mother and father had dissuaded her from focusing on English literature. Eventually, she agreed to set her sights on modern languages instead.

In the end, Rowling studied French, which she has since called "a mistake." But her chosen minor would pay off big-time. As a Classics student, Rowling’s coursework later helped flesh out Harry Potter’s magical world, for at Hogwarts, the tongue of ancient Rome is alive and well. Every other page in the series is loaded with Latin—here are some of our favorite nods.

1. Accio

When Harry and the gang use this helpful charm, desired objects (like broomsticks) come flying over. Originally, the word meant—among other things—"send (for)," "summon (forth)," or 'fetch."

2. Expecto Patronum

According to Rowling, non-muggle Latin had been evolving for thousands of years by the time her books take place. Hence, a few definitions got tweaked. As she said in 2000, "It just amused me, the idea that wizards would still be using Latin as a living language, although it is, as scholars of Latin will know … I take great liberties with the language for spells. I see it as a kind of mutation that the wizards are using."

Case in point: Expecto patronum means "I await a patron." In classical Rome, a patronus was a rich citizen who would pay and offer legal protection to some of his poorer associates who’d show their gratitude by providing various services—an awfully far cry from those animal-shaped, dementor-fighting guardians Rowling came up with.

3. Evanesco

Here’s a disappearing spell—which Neville Longbottom casts on his own desk—that literally means "to vanish." Sounds about right.

4. Incendio

Who’s up for another no-brainer? Shouting "Incendio!" helps Mr. Weasley light the Dursley’s fireplace. Oh, and by the way, incendiarius is Latin for "fire-raising."

5. Expelliarmus

When you’ve gotten this one down pat, disarming an opponent becomes child’s play. The incantation loosely combines expellere ("drive out" or "expel") and arma ("weapon").

6. Nox

Whispering the Latin word for "night" is basically the astute young wizard’s answer to those trendy "clap-off" lamps—it extinguishes the glow at the end of your wand.

7. Crucio, the Cruciatus Curse

One of the three unforgivable curses in Harry’s world, this spell inflicts unbearable, agonizing pain upon its target. Naturally, Voldemort loves it. Cruciare means "torment/torture" and is related to the English term "crucifixion."

8. Severus Snape

Severus is how Latin-speakers say "severe" or "serious." That about sums up Snape’s chilly personality.

9. Draco Malfoy

Linguistically, there’s a connection between this obnoxious bully and Disney’s scariest villain. Like Sleeping Beauty’s devil-horned Maleficent, Malfoy can be traced back to malus, which means "bad," "evil," or "wicked." As for his first name, Draco translates to "dragon"—a Latinization of the ancient Greek word drakōn. Be that as it may, just about every fire-breathing reptile in the series is a good deal nicer than Malfoy...

10. Professor Lupin

No wonder this guy got himself bitten by a werewolf! With a name like Lupin, Harry’s third Defense Against the Dark Arts professor had it coming—after all, not only does lupus mean "wolf," but the extant gray wolf is scientifically known as Canis lupus.

BONUS: HOGWARTS’ SCHOOL MOTTO

While it isn’t exactly "hidden," this deserves a quick mention. Like a number of real schools and universities, Hogwarts pours on the prestige with a Latin slogan: Draco Dormiens Numquam Titillandus or "Never Tickle a Sleeping Dragon." Eat your heart out, Yale.

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BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images
BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images

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Why Are Common Graves Called Potter’s Fields?

Graves in potter's fields are sometimes marked with blank headstones or crosses.
Graves in potter's fields are sometimes marked with blank headstones or crosses.
vyasphoto/iStock via Getty Images

For centuries, regions around the world have maintained common graves called potter’s fields, where they bury unidentified victims and impoverished citizens who couldn’t afford their own cemetery plots. The term potter’s field has been around for just as long.

The earliest known reference to a potter’s field is from the Gospel of Matthew, which historians believe was written sometime during the 1st century. In it, a remorseful Judas gives the 30 silver coins he was paid for betraying Jesus back to the high priests, who use it to purchase a “potter’s field” where they can bury foreigners. It’s been speculated that the priests chose land from a potter either because it had already been stripped of clay and couldn’t be used for farming, or because its existing holes and ditches made it a particularly good place for graves. But Matthew doesn’t go into detail, and as the Grammarphobia Blog points out, there’s no evidence to prove that the original potter’s field was ever actually used for its clay resources—it could’ve just been a parcel of land owned by a potter.

Whatever the case, the term eventually caught on as English-language versions of the Bible made their way across the globe. In 1382, John Wycliffe translated it from Latin to Middle English, using the phrase “a feeld of a potter,” and William Tyndale’s 1526 Greek-to-English translation of the passage featured “a potters felde,” which was altered slightly to “potters field” in King James’s 1611 edition.

Around the same time, a new definition of potter was gaining popularity that had nothing to do with pottery—in the 16th century, people began using the word as a synonym for tramp or vagrant. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was first written in a 1525 Robin Hood tale, and William Wordsworth mentioned it in his 1798 poem “The Female Vagrant.” It’s likely that this sense of the word helped reinforce the idea that a potter’s field was intended for the graves of the unknown.

It’s also definitely not the only phrase we’ve borrowed from the Bible. From at your wit’s end to a fly in the ointment, here are 18 everyday expressions with holy origins.

[h/t Grammarphobia Blog]