Folklore, Latin, and Aramaic(?): Language in Harry Potter

This past week, I spent some serious QT with an old friend: Harry Potter. The week had started out on the rougher side, with a pitbull attack that left my dog’s neck and my right calf somewhat worse for the wear. I wanted something comforting to read, the first night, and for some reason Harry Potter came to mind. All seven titles were available on my Oyster; I went for the sixth, raced through it to the seventh, and emerged much comforted, with a penchant for telling people I’d gotten a bad bite off a flobberworm.

Among the many upsides to growing up in the late 90’s and early millenia, the advent of Harry Potter, for my siblings and I, reigned supreme. I received Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as a birthday present in fourth grade, shortly after its american publication date, and let it molder on my bookshelf until I heard some of my bus mates raving about it a few months later. From the first page, I was riveted — by the wit and cheer and fullness of Rowling’s magical world, by the quests, angst-filled and unasked-for, that Harry was behooved to undertake, and, of course, by Harry himself. Rowling gave her boy who lived a Dickensian upbringing to counter the comforts of Hogwarts, a bevy of talents (Quidditch, defense against Dark Arts, bravery) and not insignificant weaknesses (occulumency, potions, a bullheaded attraction to dangerous situations), great friends, powerful allies, and enemies who were truly, and inventively, evil, or else sinister and shift and, in the end, not evil at all. There is horror and tragedy a’plenty in Harry Potter, but unlike the dystopian teen dramas so popular today, there is also warmth and delight and hope — and language.

Harry Potter takes place in England, and the traits of the magical world are British to the hilt: cozy and eccentric and occasionally feudal. English is the predominate language for Rowling’s wizards, but it is an English enhanced with scads of Latin and plenty of neologisms, ancient mythology, history, and folklore. The former is the basis of nearly all spells, whether it is:

unaltered (“accio,” the summoning charm, “patronus,” the dementor-blocking guardians, “crucio”, the unforgivable torturing curse),

modified (the unforgivable controlling curse “imperio,” from impero and the blocking spell “impedimenta,” from impedio),

compounded (the beaver-teeth spell “densaugeo,” from dens, “teeth,” and augeo, “to enlarge”),


blended with english, as in the playful levitating charm “wingardium leviosa,” from wing +  arduus, “steep” + levo, “lift.”

Among the latinate spells lies one ghastly exception: the third unforgivable curse “avada kedavra,” which kills instantly, when uttered by those who truly mean it. According to Rowling, “avada kedavra” is an Aramaic epitaph meaning “may the thing be destroyed,” and is the origin of the more common “abracadabra”. All fittingly spooky, but I couldn’t find any concrete evidence of either (the OED says we get abracadabra from the late Greek abraxas, “supreme god”) and ??, an Aramaic scholar, disputes both out of hand. Certainly, “kedavra” bears a phonetic and possibly semantic resemblance to the latin “cadaver,” but the best estimates as to the latter’s origin cite the verb cadere, “to fall, sink down, perish.”

Moving over to herbology, many of the magical plants Harry encounters in Professor Sprout’s greenhouses have Dahlian names — that is to say whimsical, but at least partly tied to a real-world equivalent, as in the snargaluff pod, the abyssian shrivel fig, and the venomous tentacula. Animals, meanwhile, are mostly lifted wholesale from Greek mythology (hippogriffs, centaurs) and British and Slavonic folklore (e.g. boggarts, banshees, Dobby, padfoot from the former and the haunting and havoc-wreaking veela from the latter).

Another word apparently lifted from old Britain is parselmouth, which in the Harry Potter series denotes a person who can converse with snakes. Rowling says the word once referred to people with “mouth problems, like a hairlip.” As with “avada kedavra,” I wasn’t able to find proof of this, but it may well be true: the “par” in parcel means “to divide,” and the parsnip was so named for its forked root.

I won’t get into proper nouns, as nearly all are real, though exceedingly well thought out. However, there is a very interesting story around Diagon Alley, the wizarding world’s equivalent of Portobello Market. Rowling got to the name through tmesis, chopping “diagonally” into “diagon” and “alley” and she did so very intentionally: back in early Britain, so-called “ley lines” connected places of power, denoted by markers and mounds. Later, the Romans built roads on the lines, and the Church built churches on the markers and the nobility built castles on the mounds, all in the name of preserving the sanctity, and thus the power, of the originals.

Folklore, Latin, and Aramaic(?): Language in Harry Potter

You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, or ALS vs the Indomitable Esther Lindwall

Merriam-Webster defines indomitable as “impossible to defeat or discourage.” The word entered English in the 1630s, when England itself was gearing up for civil war. It’s a negation of the the latin domitare, from domare, “to tame.” The “dom” root gives us lots of relations to tame, from domestic to domicile, but indomitable appears to be its sole negation.

This past Friday, I took the train from Penn Station to Albany, where my sister picked me up and skedaddled me from Rensselaer’s spaghetti streets to my father’s farm, in southwest Vermont. It was my third trip to the farm since Labor Day, but the first two had been designed purely around hiking and eating and drinking local beers, whereas this one was dedicated to mourning the passing and celebrating the life of my grandmother Ester, known to me as Mormor, who had passed away a few weeks prior.

In 1995, Ester was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS, which you may know as the reason so many people were pouring ice water over themselves last summer. Unlike Lucius Lyons’, my grandmother’s diagnosis was spot-on. When her daughter married my father, in 1999, Ester was still independently mobile, though she could no longer dance, an activity she loved second only to gabbing. Over the next sixteen years, all of the activities she loved: the ability to walk, to pour a glass of wine, to stir a pot of swedish meatballs, ice a hot milk cake —  would be taken from her in fits and spurts.

ALS afflicts the body mercilessly, shutting down the motor neurons that normally serve as a conduit between brain and muscle, which causes massive atrophy and musculskeltal pain. Mormor — fairly petit to begin with— was smaller each time I saw her, her skin hung like sheets off her arms and her head appeared outsized atop an increasingly bobbly neck. In the beginning, she could still speak, though the words came out slowwwwly, and somewhat tinnily, as though through a transistor radio. Eventually, slow became a crawl became a valiant fight to get a single word out. To me, those words might be “Brady,” my husband, or “Brooklyn,” where I now live and where she worked as a nurse during the second world war. For all the unsaid words, she used her eyes and the occasional extension of her hand.

ALS afflicts the body but it spares the mind, and Mormor used hers to escape her increasingly cramped jail. She had a velcro memory and a deeply Swedish sense of humor (dopey-dark, with a subtle punch line). Her Lena and Ollie jokes were often sidelined by peals of laughter that her disease prolonged, and she saw, even, the Swedish humor in that — a disease that lets you start laughing but won’t let you stop.

There is no cure for ALS; its husking out of the body is, typically, fatal. Yet Mormor lived to be ninety-four, and the last twenty years of her life, the disease years, were spent, to the best of her ability, as she’d spent the first seventy four: making and maintaining friendships, keeping apprised of family goings-on, learning (she became, in her last years, a wicked cribbage player). At her funeral, the line of people who wanted to speak was a microcosm of the people she’d known through thick and thin: children and grandchildren, old friends and new.

ALS is cruel and vicious, but it couldn’t defeat the essence of my grandmother. Shortly before she died, one of the staff members at her hospice celebrated a birthday, and Mormor sang to her — four sentences of song, the words clear, from a woman who hadn’t sang in years.

You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, or ALS vs the Indomitable Esther Lindwall

The History of Accidence in America (or the name of a thing that may be seene, felt, heard, or understood)

My mother was, and remains, a Latin teacher, and Latin was, and remains a common point of interest between her and my father, who were both classics majors and met at the classics booth on my mother’s first day of shopping classes (my father was the booth boy, and my mother took the bait, at least for 16 years). Defiantly, I took French, and later, Spanish, and later still, Arabic and Italian, and never managed to absorb more than a few phrases of Latin, the main one being puer molestus, or “annoying boy,” which my mother, a teacher of teenagers, had many occasions to utter.

Latin has been a peripheral item in my life, but it was tremendously important in the lives of early non-native Americans. In the Massachusetts Bay colony, English was the langue franca, but Latin was the lingua eruditum, language of official documents, and the men of God (and lucre) who wrote and received them. Thus, education, when it arrived in Massachusetts, was theological, and heavy on Latin. It was also, at the younger levels, open to all (men), regardless of class, and supported by taxes levied on the area public — and in these traits, it was revolutionary.


The first public school to open in Massachusetts was the Latin Grammar School, which is now known as the Boston Latin School, and has, through its 380 years, churned out its fair share of luminaries musical (Leonard Bernstein), philosophical (George Santayana), and political (Joe Kennedy). From its early days, Boston Latin was blessed formidable faculty, starting with one Ezekiel Cheever, who served as the school’s headmaster for nearly forty years.  (Among his students was the fearsome—and fearmongering—pastor Cotton Mather, who sent many “witches” to the gallows before backing off, picking up an interest in vaccinations, and, eventually, writing his old Latin teacher a glowing eulogy.)


Cheever, English-born and Cambridge-educated, was one of, if not the first, professional educators in the colonies. Before he came to Boston, he taught Latin at a string of New England towns: New Haven, Ipswich, and Charlestown. Along the way, he wrote many notes on Latin instruction, and after he retired, these notes were economically compiled into a little textbook whose proper title was Cheever’s Latin Accidence: An Elementary Grammar, for Beginners in the Study of the Latin Language (to the cool kids, it was just Accidence.)

Accidence was published in 1708, and became the standardized Latin textbook for one and a half centuries. As someone who doesn’t read Latin, I’m not the best person to judge its efficacy, but the English excerpts I’ve read are clear and concise. Cheever’s definitions of nouns and verbs could well be used in English class today.

“A Noune is the name of a thing that may be seen, felt, heard or understand…A Verbe is a parte of speche, declined with mode and tense, and betokenenth dooying: as Amo, I love: or suffering: as Amor, I am loved: or beeying: as Sum, I am.

To me, the most curious thing about Accidence is its title. “Accidence” is not a word I often run across, and it has two meanings that are quite different from its’ common cousin’s: the philosophical “non-essential or incidental characteristic,” and the grammatical “part of grammar dealing with inflections.” The latter seems to be the likelier source: inflections are the changes in word form for the expression of tense, person, case etc, and would be a subject of constant coverage by a Latin teacher, particularly one who made heavy use of oral repetition.

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Why our “accident” and Cheever’s “accidence,” which share the same root, ad – “to” + cadere – “fall”, have such different definitions is unclear to me, but the latter’s grammatical meaning came about in the 15th century, far after the former, which made its way into France in the 12th century, from the Latin accidentem. At any rate, Cheever, or Mr. Williams, appear to be the sole employers of “accidence” as a textbook title.

Do you remember much from any of your old textbooks? I remember the renderings of different porto-men in my sixth grade social studies textbook, and that’s about it. But Accidence had weight: it was likely the only textbook in many primary school classrooms for decades, until the popularity of Latin began to wane and make room for other subjects. In his eulogy for Cheever, Cotton Mather wrote “Master of Sentences, he gave us more/The(n) we in Our Sententiae had before.” Accidence was a dead-tree piece of that, but it gave life to years of early scholarship on par with the motherland’s, and when it came time to break away, that scholarship helped us run.

The History of Accidence in America (or the name of a thing that may be seene, felt, heard, or understood)

A Pocket of One’s Own

From ages 7 to let’s say 10 but honestly it was older than 10, my at first most-prized and later on most-loved possession was my Felicity American Girl doll. Like all of the historical American G’s, Felicity had a backstory — she was from colonial Williamsburg, and her father was a shopkeeper and a revolutionary who sold chocolate instead of tea. In school, we covered the American Revolution as often as testing standards and obligation to gloss over other countries’ histories allowed, but much of what I know of that time, I owe to Felicity. For instance: in colonial Williamsburg, women’s pockets were standalone, large, floppy things attached to a sash and worn under their dresses, between their petticoat and under petticoat.


Felicity’s pocket had pretty embroidery, but, even at 6, I remember thinking that the concept of having to root through layers of fabric just to get to a spare pin or some egg money somewhat ridiculous. And yet, when they were first introduced, pockets were somewhat revolutionary themselves, for they allowed women to conduct errands of commerce and pay social calls without having to rely on the long-extant pockets of the menfolk. Women, needless to say, loved them. The Victoria and Albert Museum rounded up a number of pocket-related writings, among them a raison d’etre from the inestimable Teresa Tidy:

‘It is also expedient to carry about you a purse, a thimble, a pincushion, a pencil, a knife and a pair of scissors, which will not only be an inexpressible source of comfort and independence, by removing the necessity of borrowing, but will secure the privilege of not lending these indispensable articles.


A pocket was not a room of one’s own, but it was a start. The reticule took it a step further. Reticules are small, netted drawstring bags — the very first handbag. They came about at the end of the eighteenth century to abet the more body-conscious restrictions of the grecian, empire-waisted-style of gown that had replaced the hoop&petticoat as the de rigeur womanswear.

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Reticules tended to be more delicate and far less spacious than the pocket, and for these offenses Teresa Tidy labeled them “ridicules” — but their feebleness led to larger, more structured handbags on the one hand, and attached pockets on the other, inventions which have endured to this day.

The English word pocket can be traced through Old North French poche to Proto-Germanic *puk without a change in meaning, though its original Proto-Indo-European root *beu means “to swell.” Reticule, meanwhile, comes first from the French réticule, aka a hair net, but fancy. Reticule comes from the Latin reticulum, meaning a little net, from rete, which is just plain net. Rete itself comes from the Proto-Indo-European *ere, which means to separate. And this is quite fun because you can think of a reticule as a separate piece that brought women peace, or at least a bit of convenience. First comes reticules, then comes suffrage, as the saying goes.

I don’t see many reticules today, though antique shops sometimes have lovely beaded ones. But, if you want to say something has a webbed or netlike appearance, you can say it is reticulated, which is how Anthony Doerr described a dome in All The Light We Cannot See, and how I got onto this topic in the first place.

A Pocket of One’s Own

Bradykinesia, Infinite Jest, and The End of the Tour

I haven’t seen The End of the Tour yet, though the first fumbling, bandana’ed seconds of the trailer sold me. I liked Jason Segal in Forgetting Sarah Marshal; he brought a earnest, kind pathos to a role lesser comedic actors would have made merely whinging and pathetic. From the End of the Tour trailer, it seems the earnestness and the kindness — and certainly, the pathos — are on full bore in Segal’s portrayal of David Foster Wallace, which makes the late, mostly-revered author seem appealing rather than intimidating.

By some accounts, including Mary Karr’s, David Foster Wallace was intimidating — intimidatingly brilliant/moody/prickly/verbose/manic/lumbering/out of control. And certainly, Infinite Jest, the novel Foster Wallace is touring for in the film, feels intimidating. There’s a hesitance, even among my bluest stockinged friends, to discuss his work, for fear of coming off as pretentious. But that’s a shame, honestly, because his writing is a cracking cat o’nine or else a cat on a hot in roof or else the cheshire cat: it’s unspooling and sardonic and frenetically observant and there really isn’t anything else like it, which means it’s prime for discussion. And instead, it’s in the clutches of the humble braggers who paint it as some TOWERINGLY INSURMOUNTABLE WORK OF INFINITE GENIUS and thus, avoided by everyone else.

If you haven’t read Infinite Jest, don’t believe the humble braggers. It’s a dense plot, sure, and stocked with little-known and occasionally made-up words, and those footnotes, some of which have their own footnotes — but at the same time, this is no Finnegan’s Wake. If you like rapier-smart and detached teenage protagonists trying to solve the mysteries of their shadowy parents, and/or if you like gritty-yet-reverential, minutely-detailed depictions of addicts and A.A., and/or if you like semi-corpordystopias set in the murkily near future, and/or if you live in Inman Square or Brighton, check it out. At the very least, you’ll learn a lot of words, and come away with a jaded take on video conferencing.

I read Infinite Jest a few years ago, on a Kindle, during a period of my life that occasioned a lot of 4 hour bus trips between Boston and New York. On a Kindle, Infinite Jest is no larger than any other book, and there’s a built-in Oxford English Dictionary, and you can jump to and from footnotes easily.* I liked it enough to finish it, though I didn’t devour it the way I did The Corrections (that cruise dinner party scene!), and a quick glance at its Wikipedia page reveals I’d largely forgotten whole hunks of its plot (e.g. the entire Arizona conversation. Stream of conscience dialogue is not so much my thing.**)

I came away from Infinite Jest with a handful of images and threads: a boy flying on a bike down Comm Ave, a cold, sexually rapacious mother, violence in Inman Square, tough recovering addicts in leather jackets drinking grubby coffee, a killer video, years named after corporations, toxic, Underworld-style waste, a woman in a head scarf, a psychic radio show, the aforementioned video conferencing and lots and lots of new words. Some of them were architectural, like “lintel,” some were perfectly suited for describing teenage boys, like “cambering” and “fantods,” and some were medical, like “thrush,” and “bradykinesia,” the latter of which stuck in my head because I had just started dating (and riding Chinatown buses in order to see) a man named whose first name was was, and is, the first half of that pathology.

Bradykinesia means “slowness of movement,” from the greek bradys, “slow,” and kinesis, “movement.” It’s one of the “cardinal manifestations of Parkinson’s Disease,” though you don’t have to have Parkinson’s to be bradykinetic. In the book, one of the narrator’s brothers is bradykinetic, in addition to having an oblong head and a crab-like, tilted walk and possibly other maladies I cannot remember. My now-husband is, it should be said, NOT bradykinetic, though he is very measured, and certainly not frenetic. When I first came upon this word, I looked it up, gloated, wondered if Brady’s and my relationship was advanced enough to text him the meaning of his name, and decided it was.

“My name is Irish,” he texted me back. says the name Brady means “spirited” in Irish or “from the broad island” in English. says it stems from a last name that means “large-chested,” a definition with which Wikipedia agrees and offers an alternative: “thievish.” “Spirited” is a much better descriptor of my husband than “slow,” “large-chested” is … perhaps slightly better? “Thievish”… not so much. In Massachusetts, where I’m from, “Brady” means “god,” but my husband is from Southern Connecticut, Giant’s-land.

Anyways. In Greek, bradys indisputably means “slow,” and I know that thanks to David Foster Wallace. Read Infinite Jest. Or read the Pale King, which is engrossing enough for a book set at the IRS, but also truly depressing and doesn’t have an ending. Or don’t read either, and read “Consider the Lobster,” which is absolutely fantastic and rocks the footnotes.

*Or, shhh, skip them.

**If it’s not yours, skip these chapters too!

Bradykinesia, Infinite Jest, and The End of the Tour

For Osme, With Love and Squalor (and Skeptikós)

The fall of my senior year of high school, I lost my sense of smell. It happened gradually, perhaps, or perhaps it didn’t. Before I lost it, I was not the sort of person who exclaims over how good things smell, or how bad, though there were scents that made me feel happy and sprightly, like pine sap, or dangerously zippy, like gasoline. Now that I can’t smell, I see my smelling life as one that blundered along a bland path whose borders teamed with scents I never bothered to notice.

The medical name for not being able to smell is anosmia, literally “no smell,” from the Greek an and osme.  Anosmia has many causes, some of them temporary, like the common cold or the flu, some visible, like polyps and tumors, and some linked to blunt traumas, or diseases, like Alzheimer’s, which damage the olfactory pathway — the path that connects the nerves in our noses to receptors in our brains. In my case, the cause isn’t clear. The doctor who examined me found no tumors or polyps or signs of nasal tissue damage; it was as though my brain had simply stopped talking to my nose one day and decided, thereafter, that she didn’t need the company.


My own, unfounded, hypothesis involves massive amounts of chlorine and a small amount of bleach: my senior year, I was swimming for three to five hours a day. When I dyed my hair platinum, half of it fell out, and maybe my nose did as well. I like to think of it that way, lying clean and pristine on the white tiled floor, watching the long forms and wavelets of the freestylers up above.

If I were given a choice of which sense to lose, I’d pick the one I was dealt, as I think many people would. But the caveat with losing your sense of smell is the accompaniments you purportedly lose with it: your taste and your memories. Indeed, the first thing most people ask when they find out I can’t smell is some variation of “so, does that mean you can’t taste?” The answer is that at first, I couldn’t, which lent me an ability, much admired in my freshman dorm, to glug double shots of cheap vodka without wincing. Over time, though, my taste came back, and today I’d like to think it’s not so different from my smelling taste, though my love of texture and tolerance for spice and salt have remained high.


As far as memory goes, mine seems pretty solid, but when I rifle back to my teens and childhood, none of the memories are scented, except one, in which I am barefoot in my little garden, and I find a dusky red tomato tucked among the leaves, and when I snap it and hold it in my hand, it smells of warm, powdery dirt.

To live without smelling in New York City is to not live in New York City at all, as my mother says. And it is true that, apart from the crowds, I do not mind the subway in summer; apart from the grime, I can stand my own in public bathrooms and among the durians of Grand Street. I do mind that I have never smelled a cherry blossom.


There is one full dimension and other fractional dimensions missing from my anosmic life — but whereas before I barely noticed smells, I’m now obsessed with their shadow selves. Absence makes presence, or something like that. My husband is forever having to describe for me the scents of things I suspect might be beautiful or interesting or horrid — the horrid ones in particular I have a paranoid mania about. I worry that my dog smells when I drop her off at a friend’s; I worry that our apartment smells after I’ve made a muddled mess of burnt beans. Most of all I worry that I myself smell, though unlike the beans, my husband has yet to confirm this latter fear.


There isn’t a medical cure for anosmia; sometimes, it vanishes on its own, but if it’s a byproduct of damaged olfactory nerves, it’s typically there to stay. Ten years in, damaged olfactory nerves are likely what’s plaguing me, and yet, I’m not sure there’s no hope. A few months ago, I was walking down Henry Street in Cobble Hill, and wham, magnolia. And then I inhaled again, and it was gone. Last week, the same thing happened with hot dogs. “I don’t smell any hotdogs,” my friend said. So maybe it was phantasmorgia. But maybe, just maybe, it might have been my brain, finally accepting my nose’s long ignored messages.

For Osme, With Love and Squalor (and Skeptikós)

These Days, My Berry Picking Happens Within Plastic Containers


Mostly, my fingers shrink from mold and squooshy, caterpillar-like guts. But when I was little, I used to pick big knobbly blackberries and the rare black raspberry from the overgrown bramble that separated the end of our front lawn from the private road we called “the slow road.” Even as a kid, and certainly as an adult, the a sudden, albeit leafily hidden, glut of free, limitless fruit never failed to stir up rapacious, crazy-fisted delight. Or, as Seamus Heany puts it:

You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
These Days, My Berry Picking Happens Within Plastic Containers