Dept. of Word Lists

Harry Potter and Witty Wordplay

As Harry Potter and the Cursed Child dominates book sales and the play entertains London audiences night after night, we examine the sources and humor of spell names in the entire Harry Potter series.

Wordplay is an essential part of the legendary success of the Harry Potter series of novels by J.K. Rowling and the current success of the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne. This device is perhaps clearest in the names of the spells throughout the series, most of which incorporate forms of Latin roots. This is humor that is accessible to parents and that kids can grow into, as they grew up with the series itself.

Good examples of spells hiding Latin are the movement spells in The Prisoner of Azkaban:

Hermione whispered, "Mobiliarbus!" The Christmas tree beside their table rose a few inches off the ground, drifted sideways, and landed with a soft thump right in front of their table, hiding them from view.

This spell, which moves trees and only trees, incorporates part of the Latin for tree, arbor.

Later in the same novel, there is another movement spell:

He muttered, "Mobilcorpus." As though invisible strings were tied to Snape's wrists, neck and knees, he was pulled into a standing position, head still lolling unpleasantly, like a grotesque puppet.

Mobilcorpus, which moves people, contains the Latin for body, corpus.

There are also spells like Lumos (Latin Lumen, for a spell that produces light. Lumen can be found in English "illuminate"). Expelliarmus (Latin Expellere, "drive out, drive away" for a forceful spell which seeks to drive your opponent away) and Aguamenti (Latin Aqua or perhaps Spanish Agua for a spell that produces water), which further capitalize on foreign roots. In addition to Latin roots, there is at least one spell with a Greek source, Episkey, which fixes Harry's broken nose in The Half-Blood Prince. This word is derived from Greek episkeu, which means "to repair."

Two spells in particular, Orchideous and Riddikulus, have an extra layer of fun hidden within them. Orchideous is a spell that produces flowers, but with the name of the spell containing the word hideous, the result may not be such a nice looking bouquet. This kind of play-on-words is echoed in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, when a character demonstrates the Engorgement spell (Engorgio!) and another character responds, "Consider me engorgimpressed." The Riddikulus spell makes something frightening (a Boggart) into something funny or amusing to the caster of the spell- Boggarts are defeated by laughing at them, so you have to get "rid" of them by making them "riddikulus."

Keeping track of what these spells are called and what they do can be complicated business, and it's possible that even the author, J.K. Rowling, got a little confused. In Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, the following occurs:

"My elf has been stunned." Diggory raised his own wand, pointed it at Winky, and said "Enervate!" Winky stirred feebly, Her great brown eyes opened.

This would suggest that the enervate spell revives creatures. The only problem is that enervate is a very bad name for a reviving spell, because the word enervate means to impair and is from a Latin word, enervare, that meant "to weaken", which is a popular meaning of the English word as well. No one is sure if this spell name was something Rowling did on purpose or whether it was an oversight, but to avoid this confusion, Rowling has since changed the name of this spell, which is also cast in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, to "rennervate", the name of the spell now meaning "to energize."

This isn't the only time a spell name source has been mysterious. The unlocking spell, Alohomora was said to be from the West African Sidiki dialect and mean "friendly to thieves." The problem with this is that Sidiki is a West African name and what was probably meant was Sikidy, a form of divination practiced in Madagascar, off the coast of Africa. The Malagasy language spoken in Madagascar does have a word Alohamora used in Sikidy, which means, among other things, "favorable to thieves."

When J.K. Rowling created the magical universe of Harry Potter, she obviously saw the task of naming things, like the spells, not as a burden, but as an opportunity to enrich the world and expand its reach. Harry Potter devotees can talk for days about what it "means" that there is Latin and other muggle languages sprinkled throughout the spell names. For a casual reader, a detail like that can open up a previously hidden door and confirm that there is so much more to discover in Rowling's magical universe.

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Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects. Click here to read more articles by Adam Cooper.

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