The Buried Roots of Harry Potter Words



By Devon Brown

Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone endures as one of the best-selling books in   since its original publish date in June, 1997. The entire series has been translated from English into a total of 80 languages, but fans of the book will remember it best for introducing a language all its own. Spells, sports and character names, born from the imagination and education of J.K. Rowling have embedded themselves in popular culture worldwide. Here are a few of our favorites and some clues to their origins.

The Spells

Nowhere is the concoction of new words from old more obvious than in the spells of Harry Potter.


Expelliarmus, one of the most recognizable spells across the series, snatches an opponent’s wand from their grasp and sends it sailing out of reach. When we break the spell down to its most basic parts, this result comes as no surprise. Expel comes from two Latin terms; ‘ex’ meaning out and pellere which means to drive. Armus is the Latin term for arm (“The Etymology of Harry Potter Spells”). Much like modern times, arm is another term for weapon. When we put all these pieces together, we have Expelliarmus to drive the weapon out (“Classical Roots”).

Expecto Patronum

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Professor Lupin explains to Harry that, “The Patronus is a kind of positive force, a projection of the very things that the Dementor feeds upon – hope, happiness, the desire to survive – but it cannot feel despair, as real humans can, so the Dementors can’t hurt it” (“Lessons with Lupin”). The spell itself is a combination of Latin roots that become a call for help. It says, “I await a guardian.”

Something Borrowed

Not all words were constructed from scratch. Some were plucked from history because of their magical potential.


The mandrake plant first appears in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets where Hermione explains, “It is used to return people who have been transfigured or cursed to their original state.” She warns that “The cry of the Mandrake is fatal to anyone who hears it.” What many do not know is that the mandrake is a real plant and many of the attributes assigned to it by Rowling originate in the old legends and folklore that surround it. In the 14th century the root plant was believed to have magical properties. Just like in the books, it was said that the mandrake would cry when harvested and anyone who heard it would be killed instantly.


Muggle, in the world of Harry Potter, is the name for all non-magical people and some might take offense because the term comes from the English word mug which means easily fooled, but muggle was also used in the 1600s to mean sweetheart (“Dumbledore”). If we combine the two, we end up with lovable fool, which seems an accurate description of the average human when compared to a wizard.

What’s in a Name?

Character names go beyond a simple moniker and have deeper meanings as well.

Hermione Granger

Until the first Harry Potter film aired, most readers had no idea how to pronounce Hermione Granger, but the name itself is hardly new. Rumor has it that Rowling plucked it from Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. Some say the name’s origins go back even further to ancient Greece as a derivative to the name Hermes, the clever messenger god (Ellen). Considering Hermione’s role in the Potter trio, her last name Granger has significance as well. In Middle English, Granger means bailiff.

Severus Snape

It is not shocking to discover that, according to, Severus means strict, stern or severe in Latin. Throughout the series, Severus Snape reveals himself to be more complex than he appears on the surface and the same can be said for his name. Snape comes from the early 14th century term sneap, which means to be hard on or to snub. This could refer to Snape’s treatment of Harry, but a more creative interpretation would suggest that his last name refers to the snubbing or bullying he received from Harry’s father James when they were students at Hogwarts.

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Works Cited

“The Classical Roots of Harry Potter’s Magical Spells.” OxfordWords Blog, 17 Dec. 2015,

“The Fascinating Etymology behind Harry Potter Character Names.” Pottermore,

“’Dumbledore’, ‘Hippogriff’, and 11 More Real Words from Harry Potter.” Merriam-Webster,

Ellen. “Meanings of Latin and Greek Names in Harry Potter.” HobbyLark, 12 May 2016,

“The Etymology of Harry Potter Spells.” Pottermore,

“Lessons with Lupin.” Pottermore,

Rapp, Nicolas and Krishna Thakker. “Harry Potter at 20: Billions in Box Office Revenue, Millions of Books Sold.” Fortune, 26 Jun. 2017,

Ross, Peter. “Bizzumbaw and Heidbummers: Why Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is Better in Scots.” The Guardian, 21 Nov. 2017,



Devon Brown has worked as a professional writer for over a decade. Her pieces have been featured in traditional print outlets like National Geographic Traveler and Time Out New York. Currently, her expertise lies in social media. Under the username whatdevondiscovered, she nurtures an active community on Instagram that focuses on education, lifestyle and travel. To find out more visit her on Instagram or Linkedin.