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.