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- J.K. Rowling used Latin as inspiration for the spells in “Harry Potter.”
- Some translations are very literal; “avis” means “bird.”
- Others are complex. For example “sectumsempra” can be translated to “constant cut.”
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J.K. Rowling‘s wizarding world in the “Harry Potter” books is not so different from our own. Actual magic aside, there are many real-world inspirations behind her fictional creations. The spell incantations used are an excellent example.
In many cases, Rowling reworked the classical Latin language and created new words. Her studies of Classical language and mythology at the University of Exeter clearly came into play. Using the textbook “The Greek and Latin Roots of English” by Tamara M. Green, we’ve broken down 13 spells to give you newfound appreciation for the inventiveness found in “Harry Potter.”
“Accio” – summoning charm
In Latin, the verb “accersere” means “to summon or fetch.” Rowling modified the spelling and pronunciation to create the incantation for the summoning spell.
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“Confundo” – used to confuse opponents
Here’s an easy one. Confundo is the exact first-person conjugation of the Latin verb “confundere.” The prefix con- means “with or together” and the suffix -fundo means “to pour.” When put together, the word literally means something like “mix,” but is now figuratively used to be “jumble or confuse.”
“Crucio” – causes opponent unbearable pain
The Latin word for “cross” is “crux,” and the verb “cruciare” means “to crucify/torture.” Crucio means “I torture,” which is literally what the spell does in “Harry Potter.” Crucio is one of the Unforgivable Curses – meaning its use is punishable by death.
“Imperio” – gives the user control over another wizard
Another one of the Unforgivable Curses, (one of the most sinister spells in the wizarding world), this one is used to make a witch or wizard do your bidding. The Latin word for “power” is “imperium,” and “impero” means “I order.” Rowling likely chose to create a hybrid of these two phrases.
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“Diffindo” – severing charm
The rather dramatic translation of diffindo is “I cleave asunder,” but we can keep it simple and say it means “to split in two.” Harry uses this spell in the book to split Cedric Diggory’s book bag open when he needs to speak with him alone.
“Lumos” – ignites the tip of your wand
Perhaps the most common practical spell in the books, Lumos comes from the Latin word “lumen,” meaning “light.” Rowling also named her charity for orphaned children after the same word.
“Nox” – the anti-charm for Lumos, removing the light from your wand
Nox is the Latin word for “night” – making the spell rather self-explanatory. An incantation for “night” will take away the light from your wand.
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“Expelliarmus” – disarms your opponent
This spell is a two-parter. The first section comes from the Latin word “expellere,” which means “to drive or force out.” And then “arma” translates to “weapon” in Latin. Put them together, and the incantation means “to force out a weapon.”
“Sectumsempra” – curse which replicates slashing opponent with a sword
Here’s another combination phrase. The first part – “sectum” – translates to “cut.” And “sempra” (which you may recognize from the version of the word used in the Marine Corps. motto “Semper Fidelis”) means “always or constant.” The spell’s effect is an series of open cuts, and only the counter-curse can seal them shut.
“Avis” – charm that creates a flock of birds
This one is quite literal. “Avis” simply means “bird” in Latin. Hermione used this charm in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” when she was angry at Ron, and set a flock of birds pecking at him.
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“Wingardium Leviosa” – the levitating charm
This is another mashup of multiple influences. “Wing” (while not Latin) clearly invokes imagery of flight, and the charm causes objects to fly. The “ard” section of “wingardium” is likely from the Latin “arduus,” or “steep/elevated.” And finally “levi” means “to lift.”
“Homenum Revelio” – spell that tells you if humans are present
The Latin word “homo” means “man,” and “revelare” is the verb “to reveal.” The spell will literally “reveal humans” if they are hiding nearby.
“Priori Incantatem” – the reverse spell effect.
“A priori” is a Latin phrase which means “from the earlier.” This spell will cause the user’s wand to regurgitate ghosts of its previously cast spells. “Incantatem” is derived from the Latin “incantare” meaning “sing or recite” – often used in relation to magic or witchcraft.