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.

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