Harry Potter: Latinus Suckius

In anticipation of the release of the final Harry Potter book, I decided to go back and reread the series, because I don’t have enough ways to procrastinate already, and because I didn’t ever get around to reading books five and six.* It didn’t take long for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone** to start to wear on me. I’m hopefully not the first person to complain about this, but stylistically speaking, Rowling writes like a catalog: list upon list of the amazing people, places, and things that populate her world. And it seems like half of the characters exist only to give long lectures that detail the things in the catalog. Take this scene from the first book:

Harry: Candy? Is that candy? Special wizard candy? My evil aunt and uncle never let me have candy, because they are so evil.
Ron: Why, it’s only the best candy there ever was! We’ve got candy that hops away from you, candy that tastes like snot, candy that makes you turn colours, candy that makes you sneeze, candy that makes you gay, candy made from the smiles of unicorns, candy that erases the memories of candies you ate as a child that looking back on it really were not very good candy at all, candy that borrows your DVDs and doesn’t watch them but when you ask for them back always says that it was totally going to make time this weekend to watch them …
Harry (interrupting): Now that I’m fabulously wealthy, I will buy all the candy in the world!
Ron (excitedly): There are seventeen candy stores on this road. Let me tell you about each one in detail.
Harry: Make it quick. I’ve got an appointment with a guy who sells magical underpants.
Ron (even more excitedly): Underpants? Why didn’t you say so? Wizards have the best underpants! There’s the the underpants that are invisible when no one’s looking, the underpants that start out dirty and gradually become clean the longer you wear them, the underpants that soil themselves, the underpants that make inappropriate party conversation, the underpants you wear over your pants, the underpants that look like what children have theorized that Aquaman’s underpants would look like if he wore underpants…

I think you get my point. Also, I have no idea why J.K. Rowling wrote that scene in the style of a play.

But on to my main point. Why is it that so many the spells in the Harry Potter books are written in such lazy fake Latin? Do not mistake this complaint for a pedantic lament that children are being denied the joys of learning real Latin or whatever. I barely know real Latin, and I’m a medievalist. It’s just galling that the spells are so pedestrian, when the series is held up by so many as an imaginative triumph. She just takes an English word from the thesaurus and puts io or ium on the end.****

What’s worse, there are sites out there that actually go to the trouble of explaining the “clever” (and I use those scare quotes in the manner and cadence of the Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy) etymologies behind the spells. Ultimately, the sites just end up providing the Latin etymologies for the English words that Rowling just Latined up. Here are some examples:

–Mugglenet helpfully explains: The “Confundus Charm” comes from “confundo” the Latin for “to confuse.” You can see how the “nd” would confound the poor reader vexed by clever JKR’s wordplay. Good thing there’s an Internet etymology guide.

–Discussing “Winguardium Leviosa” the Wikipedia offers: “Leviosa” most probably originates in Latin “levis” for light. Again, a tricky way to hide the spell that levitates objects.

–Wikipedia also unearths the mystery behind “Specialis Revelio” as Latin specialis, “particular; individual,” and revelare (present tense revelo), “unveil.” Avid readers of the books will recognize the spell used to reveal what’s special about a magical object.

–And not to keep picking on Wikipedia, but there’s also “Sonorous” the spell used to make your voice loud that apparently is from Latin: sonorous, loud; noisy. And apparently not from English: sonorous, loud or deep in sound.

–Actually, let’s keep picking on Wikipedia. There’s also the companion spell “Quietus” from Latin “quietus.” Amazing linguistic pedigree for a spell that makes your voice quiet.

–And “Prior Incanto” a spell that shows you what spells were last cast by a wand, cleverly devised from the Latin roots prior and incantere, not the English words prior or incantation.

–Possibly my favorite: “Petrificus Totalus,” from Latin petra, “stone” and fieri (past participle factus), “to become”; totalus comes from Latin “totus“, meaning “complete”. Yes, totalus is definitely not from the English word total with a more Latin sounding ending attached. I don’t quite remember what it does, though. I think the spell either petrifies you totally, or totally petrifies you. Or possibly it makes your heart fill with whimsy and wonder.

If saying “sonorous” can make your voice all loud, it must be hell living with a wizard with a large vocabulary in JKR’s world. Reading aloud a piece by William F. Buckley would be like firing a pistol randomly out the window. And if the wizard got ahold of some Virgil, he’d basically be tossing a hand grenade into a pile of hand grenades that’s next to a warehouse where hand grenades are kept before being loaded into shipping crates made of hand grenades. Every verb, noun, or adjective would cause an explosion of magical effects.

This authorial laziness is even more confounding when you consider how interesting some of her spells that aren’t in Latin are. The Jelly-Leg Jinx, the Bat-Bogey Hex, the Slug-Vomiting Thingamagig–now those are spells. Glacius, Engorgio, Deletrius, Accio, Avis? That’s just a primary school Latin vocabulary memorization assignment read with a lisp.

Give me “Hocus pocus dominocus” or “Abrakadabra Alakazam” any day. Hell, give me “Mecca lecca hi, mecca hiney ho.”

*Somewhere around book four, J.K. Rowling’s editors decided that, really, she was too famous to edit, and besides, counting all that money leaves one with hardly any time left in the day. My favorite of the series remains the second installment.
**I still have my British copy.***
***This is my sly way of bragging that I once went to Britain. Did you know they call elevators lifts there? I’m sorry, I mean takeyouhighicus liftiums.
****I used a similar strategy when taking my Latin competency exam for grad school. The point is, no one paid me a megaquadzillion dollars to do that.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Sisyphus

    Hello! Ancrene Wiseass pointed me over here (well, no, not me specifically, but you know …) and I just wanted to say that I loved your medieval personal ads.

    And I never finished the first Potter book; I couldn’t get into what seemed to me like very formulaic prose. But the movies were fun.

  • Voix

    Yeah, pedestrian. Why would a children’s author try to write something that would make kids feel smart that they figured it out? That’s dumb. They should all read things that they never get, ever.

  • LLCoolCarlIII

    That is the awesome thing about being a children’s writer. You’ve got the ultimate upper hand. Whenever there’s criticism, someone can bust out the old “It’s for children” and it’s the critic who’s a jerk for taking things too seriously.

  • Laura

    I actually saw some of the psuedo-Latin spells prompting a broader vocabulary in some kids, so for that, I’m grateful. Sure, it’s not a big stretch for my brain, but then I was one of those freaks who read Shakespeare in elementary and Melville in middle school. (You may now commence the name-calling.)

    When working with a several-years-behind reading student, I invented a “cognate game” to prompt her to recognize connections between words and deduce meaning. Potter vocabulary is useful for starting that kind of thinking. (And those psuedo-lexicons at least alert some Potter fans that English words came originally from something else….)

    And don’t be silly, the mere word itself can do nothing. Chanting Potter spells never works for me, because I don’t have the appropriate wand and intent. 😉

  • Bringoutyourdead

    Very disappointed, Carl, when I contacted EBay regarding my interest in the Dagobert toilet. Apparently the attached plumbing will not empty via gravity into a moat. To make up for the inconvenience, they did offer me a roll of potty parchment autographed by Boccaccio, and a piece of the True Cross.

  • Aquamarine

    JKR is pathetic if she really thinks she can get away with coming up with the LATIN words. Please. Use some creativity. She’s an author, right? Authors have to be creative. Hey Laura, no worries, I’m one of those freaks who read Shakespeare in elementary too.
    Great blog, I love it!

  • Mahmood

    How many readers does your page have? How many readers does Rowling have? Now who may I ask is the more interesting writer? Rowling, methinks…..

    It is sooooo sad when people can’t simply appreciate certain books for what they are and instead judge them outside their genre! Your expectations are not met because they are UNREASONABLE!!! Harry Potter books are for kids…but some adults can enjoy them too (not all adults of course….some adults just have no imagination or sense of fun!)

    Are you just bitter and twisted because the author has made a freakin’ mint out of a ‘formula’? I can only say wish it was me!

  • Got Medieval

    As Dilbert (or Dogbert or some sort of bert) once said, “Never argue with idiots. They take you down to their level and beat you with experience.” Nonetheless, it’s my blog, and I’ll be an idiot if I want to.


    How many readers does your comment have? How many readers does my blog have? Now, who may I ask is the more interesting writer? Me, methinks…..

    It is sooooo sad when people can’t appreciate certain blogs for what they are and instead judge them by comparing them to wildly popular book franchises. Or when blogs criticize the government. It’s like, did your blog get the votes of 45% of the electorate? What do you mean it wasn’t on the ballot? What was I saying again? Oh, yes.

    To sum it up, the only valid criticisms are those made by people who are more successful that the criticism’s target. Recurse that, and the only one allowed to write about how much JKR sucks is Bill Gates (and I heard he is a total Herm/Ron shipper!!!!)!!!!

  • cl4in3tking

    the latin spells are legit. Imperio, crucio, and expelliamus sound MUCH better than Avada Kadavra

    You’re just jealous that you don’t know latin.

  • Got Medieval

    The professors who graded my Latin competency exam no doubt agree with you on that one.

  • ChingChuan Chiu

    Well,cl4in3tking, expelliarmus consists of ‘expello’ and ‘armus’. Expello means ‘to cast away’ and ‘armus’ means ‘upper arm’. Expelliarmus certainly doesn’t do that…

    I didn’t discover the abysmal quality of JKRs spells until I read Book 7… I don’t remember which spell it was, but it sounded horrible. But indeed, it seems as though no-one bothered to edit the HP books after part 4…

  • Anonymous

    why do u hate harry potter hmmmm???? real latin is dumb and so are

  • ChingChuan Chiu

    Well, you know, I thought that the Eragon fandom was known for its hostile fans, but apparently, the trend has spread to Harry Potter as well?
    The fans I know never had any problems with critisising the books… (and yes, I’m an HP fan, too.)

  • Nikoshkia

    expelliarmus does work. armus means weapon. armus meaning “arm” is an example of the stupid latin mentioned earlier. If it was a sentence it would be “armum expelli” but I think since its supposed to be subtle it is okay.

    JK is a fine writer for kids and adults, her books arent pretentious art but they reach people in many ways and have a lot of beautiful messages, and yes even some correct Latin.

  • Jason

    I love that anonymous comment up there.

    They need to screenshoot that one, take the last sentence, and place the word ‘YOU’ in the usual Impact or Impact-like font characteristic of a Lolcat. Then, next to the word ‘YOU’, put ‘FAIL’.

    Then trace the IP address from which the comment was made, and staple a print-out of the word ‘FAIL’ on their head.

    Sorry, but … saying something sucks when you suck worse? Ha!

    By the way, excellent blog post. Dunno how old it is now as I don’t check posts (must be a year or so now?) but still great. I wonder what the spells look like in the Latin translation of Harry Potter? If they change Winguardian Leviosa to Vingvardivm Leviosa and say that’s great, I’ll have to photocopy the pages and write fail on each one. 🙂

  • the brightest buzzing desire

    wonder what the spells look like in the Latin translation of Harry Potter? If they change Winguardian Leviosa to Vingvardivm Leviosa and say that’s great, I’ll have to photocopy the pages and write fail on each one. 🙂

    No change in any of the spells, actually–not W to V or U to V or anything else.

  • airless-wonder

    I love your ‘transcription’ from the first book!

    Can’t particularly say I agree with the analysis of the ‘latin’ words just because it sounds to me (unknowledgable as i am) like it’s mostly fans responsible for silly attempts to ‘translate’. I really don’t have any problem with fake latin words as long as they’re not advertised as being real. 😮 As some other people said, it’s pretty neat being able to recognize the words as a kid.

    In any case.. entertaining post! 😀

  • Catanea

    Hahahahaha. Sorry. I haven’t got to the end yet, but the Quietus just made me laugh…because of course “Quieto” is what American police say in Spanish versions of cop shows when they point their guns at supposed “perps” and say “FREEZE”. “QUIETO”! Hah!

  • Benjamin

    Hey. You're an idiot. Case in point:

    "Yes, totalus is definitely not from the English word total with a more Latin sounding ending attached."

    The Latin ending doesn't come from the English. The English comes from the Latin you dimwit. What are you trying to prove…Rowling used Latin roots to make the spells sound more archaic. It's not like she took an English word and made is sound Latin…the Latin words happen to sound like English words because ***NEWS FLASH*** hundreds of English words derive from Latin and Greek roots, smart one.

  • Got Medieval

    English words from Latin? I did not know that. Hmmm. I guess I'll have to rethink my entire position.

  • ChingChuan Chiu

    No, you shouldn't. It's still a fact that most spells have obvious roots in English, instead of Latin. What about Expelliarmus? Anyone who used a Latin dictionary would have used Expelliarma…

    Or spells like 'protego horribilis' and 'repello mugglentum' or something? These really sounds like 'I didn't have the time to make up a proper spell'.

  • Anonymous

    I beg to differ. I just finished third semester college Latin, and I LOVE the Latin in Harry Potter. As Benjamin said, a lot of English words are from Latin, so of course there is a resemblance. Have you noticed that “Bellatrix” translates directly as “Warrioress”? Or that “Voldemort” (which I took as a mutation of valde + mort) means intensely or greatly + death? Felix felicis, the lucky potion in book 6–“felix translates as “lucky,” “felicis” is the genitive of the word. In Latin dictionaries, words are entered with first the nominative, then the genitive, so the dictionary entry is “felix, felicis”. It’s hard for me not to believe that that was from a Latin dictionary. Also worth noting is the fact that some spells–like “accio” and “protego” are verbs in the first person singular. “Accio” literally means “I summon,” and “protego” literally means “I protect” or “I shield.” Some words are mutated a little, but I think she gets to do that. She’s an author.

    We’re all entitled to our opinions. This view has been interesting to me. But I still maintain that these are Latin words. Now, please excuse me while I go read some Latin. 🙂

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