20 July 2011

Lumos, Squibs and Mundungus, Too

Last week, in honor of the final movie based on the last half of the final book in the series, wordnik.com wrote about the language and words of Harry Potter.

Something fans of the series have known all along is that J.K. Rowling enjoys populating her wizarding world with words and phrases from various areas of science, language and life. Some of them are more obvious, like 'squib.' In our world a squib is a firework that emits sparks without exploding but in her's it's a nonmagical (or magically deficient) offspring of magical parents. Other words aren't noticeable unless you know the original. Dumbledore is the name for the greatest headmaster Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has ever seen. Rowling states she she named him after an Early Modern English word for bumblebee because she 'imagined him walking around humming to himself.'

She also appropriated Latin for her own uses, altering words such as 'lumen' (light) into the light-giving spell 'Lumos!' or 'reparare' (repair) into 'Reparo!', a spell for, well, repairing. Because of her use of real Latin words in her fake magical spells, there are many people who take issue that she is teaching real magic to children. The only thing real about the spells Rowling created for Harry Potter is their basis in the real language of Latin.

Since we're on the subject of spells, let's look more closely at my favorite, and by favorite i'm referring to the Rowling's creation of the words of the spell itself, not what it does in the stories. If you talk about magic or magicians, the first spell people think of is 'abracadabra,' the nonsensical word stage magicians often say when pulling a rabbit out of a hat, or putting a woman sawed in two back together. The word itself is now nonsense, but as close as linguists and philologists can pin down, 'it seems likley that abracadabra [...] derives from one of the Semitic languages, though nobody can say for sure.' Rowling makes a not-so-subtle nod to this word with the Killing Curse, 'Avada Kadavra.' Not only is the curse a close homophone to the nonsensical word we already know, but the second word is 'kadavra,' also a near homophone to the word 'cadaver,' or dead body. This phrase, too, has history. According to a 2004 interview with Rowling, avada kedavra is an ancient spell in Aramaic meaning 'let the thing be destroyed.' She said it was directed at illnesses. She turned it around on its head and made it her own.

I think Rowling's inclusion of this little word-snack is one of the subtleties you don't notice on the first read, but that help make the world more vibrant and real. In fact, the use of names like Skeeter (a term for an annoying pest) and Mundungus (a worde describing either waste animal product, or poor-quality tobacco with a rancid smell) help explain the characters before we even 'meet' them.

Excuse me, all this talk of Harry Potter has me reminiscing. I think i need to go reread the books, again.

(For more language of Harry Potter, visit LanguageRealm.com.)


  1. Abra Cadabra actually isn't nonsensical, its history is in mysticism and the occult. It's aramaic for 'Create as I say' and was used to invoke spirits in order to heal people of disease.

    Looking online it seems Avada Kadavra is connected to it in Aramaic also, meaning "Let the thing be destroyed"

    But so much of it is mixed up with Harry Potter fluff and not actual history I'm finding it nearly impossible to confirm or deny that.

  2. Skynes, here are two links for you. The first is from above, but more refined. It's the section on unforgiveable curses. They quote Rowling as saying what you do about 'avada kedavra,' with added bits that it was directed at illness. She turned that bit around.

    The second is from a website, World Wide Words, of a British gentleman who is elbows deep in words, having written multiple books and putting out a newsletter on them every week. His research (and he's good at it) states that 'it seems likely that abracadabra [...] derives from one of the Semitic languages, though nobody can say for sure.'

    Probably should correct the post to reflect those two bits.