Do you know the meaning behind Harry Potter spells like Expelliarmus and Wingardium Leviosa? How about where Dumbledore’s name comes from, or the debated etymology of the word horcrux? Find out all that and more in this list, adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.
The word muggle means “foolish or stupid” … sort of. Author J.K. Rowling borrowed the term mug to create the word for a person who’s not a witch or wizard. “I was looking for a word that suggested both foolishness and lovability,” she once explained. “The word ‘mug’ came to mind, for somebody gullible, and then I softened it. I think ‘muggle’ sounds quite cuddly.”
In the Harry Potter universe, another non-magical being is a squib, a person who has magical parents but isn’t a witch or wizard themselves (think Arabella Figg, Argus Filch, Marius Black, Angus Buchanan). The word squib has been around since the 16th century, when it referred to something like a firecracker. Eventually, ”damp squib” came to mean “a disappointment,” which is likely where Rowling got the term.
Speaking of disappointment, nothing is more disappointing than realizing the Mirror of Erised is just showing what you want to see most. Erised, of course, is just the word desire backwards. There’s also an inscription around the edge of the mirror that when read backwards says: “I show not your face but your heart’s desire.”
The French school Beauxbatons visits Hogwarts for the Triwizard Tournament. In French, beaux means “beautiful” and batons means “sticks.” According to fan interpretation, Rowling was probably going for “beautiful wands.”
Many of the spells in the series are derived from Latin words. According to an old post on Pottermore, this was because wizards are “old-fashioned in nature” so “it’s not surprising that so many of their spells are rooted in a more archaic language.” (Of course it didn’t hurt that Rowling had a background in Classics.) To disarm someone, a witch or wizard says “expelliarmus.” In Latin, expellere means “to drive out,” and arma means “weapon.”
6. and 7. Lumos and Nox
Lumos is the spell that characters use to light up their wands, and lumen means “light” in Latin. It’s pretty clear that this connection was intentional because to stop the light, wizards say “nox,” which means “night.”
8. Wingardium Leviosa
To levitate an object, the spell is wingardium leviosa. Rowling likely got leviosa from a Latin word, either levo for “lift” or levitas for “lightness.” Then, there’s arduus, Latin for “steep” or “high.” Wing, with its connection to flight, was probably just borrowed from English.
Rowling leaned on languages beyond Latin, too. According to author Craig Conley in Magic Words: A Dictionary, Alohomora, the spell that unlocks doors, comes from Sikidy, a type of divination from Madagascar. In Sikidy, an alohomor is often associated with the diviner.
10. Petrificus Totalus
Rowling combined Latin and Greek words to create petrificus totalus, which Hermione uses to temporarily paralyze Neville Longbottom. Petra comes from the Greek term for “rock.” The suffix -ficus and the word totalis are Latin; they mean “to make” and “total” respectively. Together, they make “to make rock totally.”
Similarly, stupefy is a spell that stuns someone. Rowling may have used Latin to invent this one, too—stupeo means to be stunned or numbed. (Or she could have just gotten it from the English words stupor or stupefy.)
12., 13., and 14. Crucio, Imperio, and Avada Kedavra
No list of spells would be complete without diving into the the etymology behind the three unforgivable curses. Crucio is the Latin word for “I torture.” Imperio forces a victim to do anything that the spellcaster wants; in Latin, impero translates to “I command” or “I order.”
Then there’s “avada kedavra,” which instantly kills someone. According to Rowling, it’s the original Aramaic version of abracadabra, meaning “let the thing be destroyed,” though that’s a historical interpretation that may not be totally true. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “no documentation has been found to support any of the various conjectures which have been put forward ... A ... large group of etymological suggestions tries to derive the word from Hebrew or Aramaic in various ways, involving, for example, an alteration of an unknown Aramaic name of a demon, or a connection with Hebrew . . . but again, supporting evidence is lacking.“
Sectumsempra, the spell that a young Severus Snape came up with, isn’t an unforgivable curse—but it might as well be with how it continuously slashes its victim. And it turns out, that’s exactly what it means. Seco is Latin for “sever,” and semper—which is pretty close to sempra—means “continuously.” Fun fact: in 2015, college student Catherine Klein discovered an ancient lizard with sharp teeth that self-sharpened, so based on the Latin meaning and the spell, Klein named the reptile “Clevosaurus sectumsemper.”
The potion Veritaserum is also likely derived from Latin. It makes someone tell the truth, and in Latin, veritas means “truth.”
17. Polyjuice Potion
The name Polyjuice Potion is an obvious one: It combines the Greek poly- to mean “many” with the words juice potion. But there's more here than meets the eye when it comes to the ingredients: As Rowling explained, “Lacewing flies (the first part of the name suggested an intertwining or binding together of two identities); leeches (to suck the essence out of one and into the other); horn of a Bicorn (the idea of duality); knotgrass (another hint of being tied to another person); fluxweed (the mutability of the body as it changed into another) and Boomslang skin (a shedded outer body and a new inner).”
Rowling embedded deeper meanings into some of her character names, too. Take Albus Dumbledore: Dumbledore was a 19th-century English word that meant “bumblebee.” Rowling described the connection this way: “Because Albus Dumbledore is very fond of music, I always imagined him as sort of humming to himself a lot.”
19. Mundungus Fletcher
A less pleasant name is Mundungus Fletcher, the moniker given to a thief and a member of the Order of the Phoenix. According to Merriam-Webster, the word mundungus has been around since 1641 when it referred to a “foul-smelling tobacco.”
20. The Dursleys
For the Dursleys, Rowling relied less on old-timey words and more on personal preference. She wrote, “Vernon’ is simply a name I never much cared for. ‘Petunia’ is the name that I always gave unpleasant female characters in games of make believe I played with my sister, Di, when we were very young.” Dursley, meanwhile, is a town in Gloucestershire near where Rowling grew up (she noted that she never visited it, just liked the name).
Rowling once claimed on Twitter that she doesn’t pronounce the T in “Voldemort,” which makes sense considering that’s the proper French pronunciation. The name is made up of French words that together mean “flight of death,” though Rowling has stated that it’s an invented name, without indicating a deeper meaning. In 2009, while accepting the Légion d'honneur in France, Rowling said, “I want to thank my French readers for not resenting my choice of a French name for my evil character. I can assure you that no anti-French feeling was at the origin of this choice.”
Speaking of Voldemort, his snake sidekick Nagini also has a significant name. The prequel film The Crimes of Grindelwald revealed that Nagini was once a human woman, and in a Blu-ray extra, Rowling explained that this was a plan long in the making, as evidenced by Nagini’s name. There are stories of the nāga in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. In all three, nāga are frequently snake people. In Sanskrit, a nagini is a female nāga.
The Harry Potter stories also include some fun already-existing terms. Like apparate, which is the quick way that magical beings move from place to place. Apparition has existed since at least the 16th century; throughout its history, it has often been used to describe the unexpected appearance of anything, but particularly magical beings. The word derived from the Latin term apparere meaning “to appear.”
The animal that’s a combination of horse and eagle is a hippogriff. Hippos means “horse” in Greek. The griff part is ultimately from the Latin “gryphus,” a creature that’s half-eagle and half-lion.
25. Expecto Patronum
Expecto patronum protects against dementors with the help of a spectral animal, also known as a patronus. In Latin, patronus refers to a protector; expecto patronum means “I await a protector.”
Accio Firebolt helps Harry when he’s fighting a dragon and needs his broom ASAP. Accio is also Latin; it means “to summon.”
Incendio, the Latin word for “from fire,” is another spell. It lights a fire.
An animagus can turn into an animal (Sirius Black, for example, becomes Padfoot the dog). The animal in animagus is fairly self explanatory, and magus is a term for priests in Ancient Persia that in the west eventually got associated with the occult.
29. Felix Felicis
The potion Felix Felicis gives the drinker good luck—which makes sense given that both felix and felicis mean “lucky” in Latin. It can sort of be translated to “Luck of Luck.”
Rowling once wrote that the word Azkaban—as in Azkaban prison, where magical criminals are kept—is a combination of the real life prison Alcatraz and the Hebrew word abaddon, “meaning ‘place of destruction’ or ‘depths of hell.’”
Rowling has also explained pensieve, which is a device that preserves memories. In her words, it’s “a homonym of ‘pensive.’” But she wanted to include sieve because a pensieve also acts as a sorter of memories, just as a sieve sorts wanted and unwanted materials.
There has been much talk of the meaning of horcrux. Some claim it came from Latin—horrere meaning “to shudder” and crux for “destruction.” Others look to the French dehors meaning “outside” and adding crux meaning “essence.” But Rowling has claimed that she just wrote syllables until she landed on a word that she liked. And she made the decision to keep horcrux after Googling it and seeing that there were no results.