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Just Charming: Tapping into the Latin Magic of Harry Potter

By Ginny Lindzey, TCA Editor and Clint Hagen, St. Andrew's Episcopal School of Amarillo

The magic of Harry Potter has swept the nation. Students and adults of all ages are reading the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and loving them. Children can be seen with fake lightning bolt scars on their foreheads, broomsticks lovingly labeled Nimbus 2000, and wands for working charms.

The Harry Potter novels are appealing on many levels, and one level most certainly is this fascinating use of words-most of them Latin-for working magic. As adults, we are fully aware the words do have a magic of their own. Most of us Latin teachers have always found words and their derivatives fascinating. But somewhere between childhood and adulthood students lose that fascination with words. Reading becomes drudgery; lists of vocabulary become dull and tiresome.

Why not take advantage of this very positive reading craze, this love for Harry Potter? Want to attract more elementary and middle school students to your Latin program? Why not hold an after school meeting on the Latin in Harry Potter!

Let's explore the Latin and pseudo-Latin words as well as classical names that can be found in the Harry Potter books. In some instances author J.K. Rowling has used real Latin, in other places she has used what we will call here pseudo-Latin-creating words of her own, perfectly within her rights as an author of fiction. New words come into the English language every day; perhaps looking at the creation of words in another language may make it easier to look at words in English, their derivatives and origins.

First, let's look at the names of some of the characters. Some names have Latin/Roman origins, some from mythology. If nothing else, it is clear that Rowling has great fun in naming characters and authors of books.

Albus (white) Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, considered the most powerful wizard

Rubeus (red, ruddy) Hagrid, gameskeeper, handler of magical creatures

Minerva McGonagall, the very wise transfigurations teacher

Lord Voldemort (fly from death?), the Dark Lord, forced to near death but now trying to return to power

Sirius (the dog star) Black (who is able to turn into a large dog)

Argus Filch, caretaker of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; he always roams the halls looking for students who are causing trouble

Lucius Malfoy

Draco (dragon) Malfoy, Harry's arch enemy

Severus (stern, strict) Snape, the rather mean, very strict potions teacher

Cornelius Fudge, Minister of Magic at the Ministry of Magic

Hermione Granger

Sibyll Trelawney, the divination teacher

Remus Lupin, the defense of Dark Arts teacher and a werewolf (how appropriately named!)

Prof Vector, the Arithmancy teacher

Errol, the Weasleys' owl (not quite up to par; old and infirm and often wandering off course)

Miranda Goshawk, author of The Standard Book of Spells (Grade 1)

Arsenius Jigger, author of Magical Drafts and Potions

Vindictus Viridian, author of Curses and Countercurses (Bewitch Your Friends and Befuddle Your Enemies with the Latest Revenges: Hair Loss, Jelly-Legs, Tongue- Tying and Much, Much, More)

Cassandra Vablatsky, author of Unfogging the Future

D(a)edalus Diggle

Doris Crockford

Next, let's look at the Latin and pseudo-Latin used in charms and spells (with the help of a wizard's or witch's wand).

Wingardium Leviosa, a levitation charm

Locomotor Mortis, a leglock curse

Petrificus Totalus, a full body-bind curse

Expelliarmus, a disarming charm

Rictusempra, a tickling charm (causing a person to double over laughing)

Tarantallegra, a dancing charm (causing a person's legs to dance out of control)

Finite Incantatem, a charm to stop all other charms currently functioning

Serpensortia, a charm that produces a black snake

Aparecium, a charm to make invisible ink appear

Lumos, a charm to make a tiny light appear on the end of a wand to use as a flashlight

Obliviate, a charm to erase a person's memory

Riddikulus, a charm/defense against a Boggart

Impervius, a charm to keep water from clinging to Harry's glasses so he can see during a Quidditch match

Dissendium, a charm to open a secret passage leading to an underground tunnel

Mobiliarbus, a charm to move trees

Mobilicorpus, a charm to move an unconscious person

Fidelius Charm, a charm used to hide secrets in a person

Expecto Patronum, a charm to produce a Patronus to fight off Dementors

Nox, a charm to extinguish light; opposite of Lumos

Ferula, a charm to bandage a broken limb (a thin or slender branch, in this case used to splint a broken leg).

Confundus Charm, a charm used to confuse people

Finally, let's look at other Latin or classical references in the books.

Fluffy, a three-headed dog guarding the sorcerer's stone (a Cerberus)

Gryffindor, one of the dormitories (griffin)

Caput Draconis & Fortuna Major (Gryffindor passwords)

the "Nimbus" series of broomsticks

famous witches and wizards on trading cards in the Chocolate Frogs include Agrippa, Ptolemy, Circe and Paracelsus

St. Brutus' Center for Incurably Criminal Boys (there is no St. Brutus; it is made up by Harry's "muggle" (non-magical) uncle to hide the fact that his nephew attends Hogwarts. An apt name for such a place, nevertheless, since brutus does mean "dull, stupid")

There is a Phoenix feather in the core of Harry's wand

Diagon Alley (ok, that's Greek) is where they shop for school supplies for Hogwarts

Animagi, wizards who can change into animals

Hippogriffs (part horse, part griffin)

Patronus (protector spirit)

Dementor (a guard from the prison Azkahban who take away your mind; treatment for exposure to Dementors is eating chocolate)

To Apparate or Disapparate, to appear or disappear; one of the ways wizards and witches can travel

The fact remains that Latin and the classics have a very, very long history. That words hold magic is an ancient idea, one demonstrated in the importance given to words in formulaic prayers at ancient Roman ceremonies, in the power held in knowing the true name of a city, or in the use of defixiones or curse tablets.

Words still hold a special kind of magic and power. The Harry Potter books can act as a delightful and entertaining springboard to capture that magic for young people and shape it into a lifelong love and respect for the power of words and language and books.

* * *

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban are published in the United States by Scholastic Press, which has an informative and educational (not to mention entertaining) website for Harry Potter at 


Ways to Use Harry Potter in the Latin Classroom

Activity 1: Have students who have read or are reading the books make lists of terms that have Latin roots or classical origins. (You might do this in conjunction with an reading or communicative arts teacher). Make it a game to see which students can come up with the most classical terms, and give extra credit for ones we didn't even list here.

Activity 2: Give students the list of Latin words in Harry Potter and challenge them to explain what the significance of these terms are. For instance, why is Rubeus an appropriate name for Hagrid? You could do this activity using our list, or you could use the lists the students came up with in Activity 1.

Activity 3: If you could create a magical spell, what would it do? What equipment would be necessary? Most importantly, what Latin (or pseudo-Latin) phrase would be spoken to make the spell work?


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July 30 , 2001

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