From Lumos to Nox – the linguistic roots of Harry Potter spells

J.K. Rowling has gifted us with one of the most iconic book series since Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter is taught at university and is a staple of every child’s (and a lot of od adults’) bookshelf. It is a coming of age tale like no other and every generation since millennials at least devoured the books, saw the movies and (if they’re fortunate enough) visited the theme parks.

But Rowling was also a student of classics and linguistics and so it should come as no surprise that the linguistics of Harry Potter are extremely well-crafted. You can notice this to an extraordinary extent in the naming of the spells. And that is why we want to introduce you to some of the thought processes behind a couple of the most famous spells in the Harry Potter series.

Let there be light – or not

The spells to turn a wand into a flashlight and turn it off again are called Lumos and Nox. Lumos is derived from the Latin word ‘lumen’ that simply translates to light. With the added suffix of ‘os’ which translates to ‘to have something’, you get ‘to have light’. And thus, a wand becomes an impromptu torch. Man, being a wizard is so handy!

Nox, on the other hand, will turn off the lights and its etymology backs that up nicely. Not only is nox the Latin word for night, but it’s also closely related to ‘Nyx’ the Greek goddess of night. And what is the night? That’s right, it’s dark (and full of terrors if you believe Game of Thrones, another great book series)!

Duelling for beginners

Expelliarmus is one of the most frequently used spells by Harry and his friends. It is one of the earliest spells they learn, and it even serves our hero to fight off one of the most powerful and most dangerous wizards of all times, who is coincidentally dead-set on killing Harry.

Expelliarmus is the disarming charm and if we take the word apart, we’ll see that J. K. Rowling has put some serious thought into its name. ‘Ex’ is Latin for ‘out’ and ‘pellere’ is the Latin word for ‘drive’. So, the first part of the spell translates to ‘drive out’. But what is driven out, you might ask. Well, ‘armus’ means ‘arm’ and over time it took on the meaning of arming yourself in combat and eventually there was the Latin word ‘arma’ which translates to ‘weapon’.

Put all of this information back together and you get something like ‘driving out the weapon’. Which is exactly what this spell does; getting the weapon (in this case the wand) out of the hands of its wielder.

Protection detail

The Patronus charm is another important spell for Harry since a Patronus is the only thing that can drive dementors away, those pesky guards of the wizarding prison that are out to suck your soul out of your body.

The spell is called Expecto Patronum and consists of the words ‘expectum’ which has Latin roots again and roughly translates to ‘expect’ or ‘await’. In this instance, the idea behind it might even be more modern, since we’re using expect nowadays and the Latin suffix just makes it sound fancier.

A Patronus was known as a guardian in both Latin and Ancient Rome (where one would probably speak Latin).

This spell will conjure up a protector to the wielder of the wand. It can take on a different form for each individual and would represent something they hold dear. Consciously or unconsciously. Harry’s Patronus, for example, is a stag, just like his father’s, while Severus Snape calls forth a doe, just like Harry’s mother Lily, whom he was secretly (or not so secretly) in love with.

This is unforgiveable

Last but not least, let us tell you about one of the Unforgivable Curses. The torture curse, Crucio also has a name, rooted in Latin.

Take the Latin word for ‘cross’ which is ‘crux’ and then look at the verb ‘cruciare’ which translates to ‘crucify/torture’ and there you have your origins.

Crucio is the first-person declination of cruciare and therefore literally means ‘I torture’ and that is exactly what the spell does. Crucio causes unimaginable pain to whoever is on the receiving end of this malicious spell work. The pain can be so intense that people who are exposed to the cruciatus curse for an extended period of time will lose their minds. Poor Alice and Frank Longbottom!

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