Harry Potter’s linguistic magical tricks

March 19, 2018 9:00 am

Harry Potter's linguistic magical tricks

 

Twenty years after the release of the first book of the Harry Potter saga, people are still loyal to this magical world created by J. K. Rowling, where brooms fly, the images in paintings interact and the dishes wash themselves. Even if you belong to the very few people who have never heard of Harry Potter, Hogwarts and their universe, this is your chance to savor a bit of their magic through the linguistic miracles realized by the author. If you are one of the Harry Potter fans, wear your invisibility cloak and find out the hidden messages behind your favorite characters’ full names.

We could not start our analysis with anybody else’s name, other than the main characters, Harry! Although it may seem a very usual name in English-speaking countries, if we look further it’s easy to understand that this name was carefully and intentionally chosen. J. K. Rowling aimed to prove that even the most ordinary and seemingly weak people can have a special fortitude, which will transform the perception of themselves when the time comes. Specifically, the name, Harry, is the Middle English form of “Henri”. This name reminds us of the English King Henry VIII, who was characterized as “one of the most charismatic rulers to sit on the English throne”. Respectively, Harry Potter gradually became a dynamic leader who brought changes and innovations in his magic world. Moreover, “Harry” is related to the Old High German word “Heri” (army), underlying the combativeness in his character.

The name, Hermione (Ερμιόνη), is also unique as it is taken from ancient Greek mythology. Hermione was the only daughter of King Menelaus of Sparta and his wife, Helen of Troy. The fact that she was the only female descendant of the great royal couple, implies the uniqueness of Hermione as the only girl in the group of three. At the same time, Hermione’s surname, Granger, was used as an occupational term for “bailiff”. This officer’s title was “grainger” in the Anglo-Norman language, and “grangier” in old French, both derived from the Latin word “granicarius”. Taking into consideration her generally strict and imposing character, we could say that her surname was reasonably chosen.

Regarding Ron Weasley’s name, it comes from Ronald, which is inspired by the nordic god Ragnvaldr. The first half of this name means “advise”, and valdr means “ruler”. Accordingly, Ron is a person who accompanies Harry and advises him.

Albus Dumbledore’s name has a very interesting origin, that has already been explained by the author herself in an interview with Christopher Lydon. “Dumbledore”, she said, is an old English word meaning bumblebee. Because Albus Dumbledore is very fond of music, I always imagined him as sort of humming to himself a lot.” His first name “Albus” means “white” or “fortunate” in Latin. This term could have been chosen either because of the white beard that the Headmaster of Hogwarts obviously has, or because it implies that he is a pure and virtuous wizard.

hogwarts

Minerva McGonagall was named after the roman goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare, Minerva. Later, she was identified with one of the greatest ancient Greek goddesses, Athena (Αθηνά), holding the powers of music, poetry, medicine, wisdom, commerce, weaving, and crafts. Thus, just like the two goddesses, it is evident that Minerva McGonagall is the dominant female figure that Hogwarts needs to work properly in several domains.

As follows, the name of the professor, Remus Lupin, seems to be especially interesting and corresponds to the special characteristic of the character. His first name reminds us of the Roman myth “Romulus and Remus”, that concerns the twin brothers who were abandoned and were brought up by a she-wolf. At the same time, the surname “Lupin” comes from the Latin word “lupinus” which means “of a wolf”.

Rubeus Hagrid’s name has a charming analysis, especially if we think about the personality of this friendly giant. Rubeus comes from the Latin word “rubeo”, which means “red” or “ruddy”. This was probably chosen because of Hagrid’s reddish cheeks, while his surname, derived from the word “hagridden” (worried), symbolizes the constant concern for Harry Potter.

Severus Snape has an aggressive name that cannot uncover his real nature. Linguistically, “Severus” means “severe” and “serious” or “strict” in Latin, and it is also derived from the Severan dynasty emperors of Rome. Thus, anyone could guess the loyal and tender personality of this character. His surname, Snape, was taken from the name of a small village in Suffolk.

The name of the Harry Potter’s archenemy should be relevant to his reputation. Specifically, the first name of Draco Malfoy supports in multiple ways his mean character. Draco originally comes from the Latin word “dragon”, which comes accordingly from the ancient Greek word δράκων (drákōn), meaning dragon, serpent of huge size, water-snake. Moreover, the first lawgiver in ancient Athens was named Draco (Δράκων), and his code of laws dates back to the 7th century BC. Taking into consideration that his name is now identified with the sense of “cruel” and “severe”, underlines the negative feelings that the name creates to the wide public. Concerning the family name, the first part “Mal” should have its origin in the Latin adjective “malus”, which means evil or bad. The last part “foy” comes from the French word “foi” (faith), which comes accordingly from the Latin word fides, meaning trust, confidence, reliance, belief, or faith. As a whole, we could say that this surname interprets the faith of the family as bad, or its evil beliefs. This word could also come from the Latin word “maleficia”, actually used to describe individuals committing evil or spellbound actions.

dementor

The name of Draco’s father is similarly “dark”, although it’s literally related to light. Lucius used to be a common Roman name, which comes from “lux” (light). Although Lucius is connected with the name “Lucifer”, meaning “bearer of light” and referring to the morning star, Venus, we tend to believe that J. K. Rowling chose that particular name for another reason. Lucifer is nowadays more commonly known as one of the names of Devil, and Lucius was a common name among several politicians and dictators in ancient Rome. Thus, these last characteristics better suit the  dark personality of Lucius Malfoy. On the other hand, Lucius Malfoy’s wife seems to have a more caring personality and shows hints of egotism, since she prefers to protect her family than fight for Lord Voldemort. Her name “Narcissa” highlights this “selfishness”. Coming once again from the Greek mythology, her name is the female version of Narcissus (Νάρκισσος), who was a young man who fell in love with his own figure and died while watching it in the reflection of a pond.

Another follower of Voldemort was Bellatrix Lestrange, whose name shows her cruel and lunatic nature from the very first moment. Bellatrix is the feminine form of the Latin word “bellator” which means “warrior”, and both of them come from the word “bellum” (war). However, the word “Bellatrix” gained a different meaning in the Middle Ages, when it was used to name the third brightest star in the constellation of Orion (also called Gamma Orionis), probably because of the Latin translation of the star’s Arabic name, al-najid, meaning “the conqueror.”

Last but not least, the analysis of Lord Voldemort’s name seems to be rather intriguing, and we cannot be sure whatJ. K. Rowling’s original thoughts of it were. If we consider the Latin as the language of origin, we would say that “volo” means either “I wish” or “I fly”, “de” means from and “mort” should come from the latin word “mors”, which means death. In this case, the Dark Lord’s name means “one who flies from death” or “one who makes you wish you were away from death”. If we translate the surname directly from French, it means “flight from death”. In general, we have to admit that this name is much more catchy than his original name “Tom Marvolo Riddle”, which Voldemort absolutely hated. Tom has been widely used since the 1700s, and maybe this is the reason why Voldemort thought that such a common name cannot represent him. His surname, Riddle, means “something that puzzles” and it is perfectly chosen for young Lord Voldemort.

All things considered, what do you think? Was J. K. Rowling this creative to identify each character with the appropriate name, or had the prophecies of the wizarding world already defined the fate of the characters, and therefore their names?

Mischief managed!

References

Dragon, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragon [5.3.2018]

Granger (name), Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Granger_(name) [5.3.2018]

Henry VIII of England, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_VIII_of_England#cite_note-3 [5.3.2018]

Harry Potter and the Translator’s Madness, Summa Linguae, https://summalinguae.com/harry-potter-translators-madness/ [3.3.2018]

What’s in a name: the fascinating etymology behind Harry Potter character names, Pottermore, https://www.pottermore.com/features/etymology-behind-harry-potter-character-names [5.3.2018]

‘Dumbledore’, ‘Hippogriff’, and 11 More Real Words from Harry Potter, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/harry-potter-words/dumbledore [3.3.2018]

Draco Malfoy, Language Realm, http://www.languagerealm.com/hplang/dracomalfoy.php [3.3.2018]

Written by Markella Koutsaki – Study visitor at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament (Luxembourg). She is currently enrolled in the trilingual Master in Learning and Communication in Multilingual and Multicultural Context at the University of Luxembourg and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in French Language and Literature form the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.

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