The Meanings Behind Harry Potter Spells

The Spells at Hogwarts

How did J.K. Rowling come up with the names of all of those magical wizarding spells?
During a 2004 interview at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Rowling said: “Does anyone know where avada kedavra [the killing curse] came from? It is an ancient spell in Aramaic, and it is the original of abracadabra, which means ‘let the thing be destroyed.’ Originally, it was used to cure illness and the ‘thing’ was the illness, but I decided to make it the ‘thing’ as in the person standing in front of me. I take a lot of liberties with things like that. I twist them round and make them mine.”
Rowling studied French and Classics at the University of Exeter, and the names of most charms, curses, jinxes and spells—from Accio to Sectumsempra—have Latin roots!

Let’s look at the etymology, or word origins, of the spells in the wizarding world—and where Latin ends and Rowling’s imagination soars.

Accio

“Accio!” The Summoning Charm is used to bring an object to the caster. The Latin word accio means to send for, to summon (forth) or to fetch.

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry uses the Summoning Charm to call his Firebolt broomstick, during the first task of the Triwizard Tournament:

It was time to do what he had to do…to focus his mind, entirely and absolutely, upon the thing that was his only chance….

He raised his wand.

“Accio Firebolt!” he shouted.

And then he heard it, speeding through the air behind him; he turned and saw his Firebolt hurtling toward him….

Confundus Charm

No need to be confounded—perplexed or confused—by the name of this charm! Rowling just dropped the “o” from the English word. Does the addition of “us” refer to the pronoun?

The Confundus Charm is a spell that causes confusion. A person who is affected by this charm is said to be Confunded. The Latin word confundo means to confuse or bewilder.

In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry tells Hermione he knows she used the charm on Cormac McLaggen during Quidditch tryouts:

“If you ask me,” said Harry quietly, “McLaggen looks like he was Confunded this morning. And he was standing right in front of where you were sitting.”

Hermione blushed.

“Oh, all right then, I did it,” she whispered.

Cruciatus Curse

The Cruciatus Curse is one of the Unforgivable Curses, because it inflicts intense pain on the recipient.

The curse sounds like what it means: It’s a crucial spell meant to crucify its victim. Crucio in Latin means to torment or to torture.

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Voldemort uses the Cruciatus Curse on Harry:

Voldemort raised his wand, and before Harry could do anything to defend himself, before he could even move, he had been hit again by the Cruciatus Curse. The pain was so intense, so all-consuming, that he no longer knew where he was...

Patronum

To cast the Patronus Charm, wizards need to know expecto patronum—a defensive spell used to repel dark creatures, like dementors. In Latin, expecto means to wait, and patronus means defender or protector.

Do this spell correctly, and you can expect, or feel confident, that your patron will appear. In this case, your patron isn’t a person who supports you with money or gifts, but an animal who shields you from harm.

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Professor Remus Lupin teaches Harry how to cast a Patronus Charm:

“And how do you conjure it?” [Harry asks]

“With an incantation, which will work only if you are concentrating with all your might, on a single, very happy memory.” [Lupin explains]

“The incantation is this—Lupin cleared his throat. “Expecto patronum!”

Expelliarmus

The Disarming Charm is one of Harry’s favorite spells—it causes whatever your opponent is holding to fly away, and it can even knock out the person.

In Latin, expello means to expel, and arma means defensive arms. But you don’t need to know the Latin roots of this charm to figure out that it expels, or drives away, arms, or weapons.

In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Professor Gilderoy Lockhart and Professor Severus Snape demonstrate the spell to the dueling club:

Both of them swung their wands above their heads and pointed them at their opponent; Snape cried: Expelliarmus! There was a dazzling flash of scarlet light and Lockhart was blasted off his feet...

“Well, there you have it!” [Lockhart] said, tottering back onto the platform. “That was a Disarming Charm—as you see, I’ve lost my wand...”

Obliviate

The Memory Charm, obliviate, erases the recipient’s memory.

In Latin, obliviscor means to have the mind darkened or to forget. And, of course, the noun oblivion means the state of being completely forgotten or unknown.

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Hermione Granger casts the spell on two Death Eaters (dark wizards) and a waitress:

“We just need to wipe their memories,” said Harry...

“But I’ve never done a Memory Charm” [said Ron].

“Nor have I,” said Hermione, “but I know the theory.”

She took a deep, calming breath, then pointed her wand at Dolohv’s forehead and said, “Obliviate.”

Sectumsempra

Sectumsempra is a dark spell, invented by Professor Severus Snape, that inflicts bloody gashes on the victim.

In Latin, secto means to cut or to sever, and semper means always. Think of how “sect” is used in the formation of compound words to mean cut—like in bisect, dissect and exsect.

In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry uses the curse on Draco Malfoy:

SECTUMSEMPRA!” bellowed Harry from the floor, waving his wand wildly.

Blood spurted from Malfoy’s face and chest as though he had been slashed with an invisible sword.

Wingardium Leviosa

The Levitation Charm is one of the first spells young wizards and witches learn. With a “swish and flick” hand motion, the magic words make an object rise.

In Latin, arduus means high, and levis means light in weight. In English, the verb wing means to take flight. And most amatuer and professional magicians include a levitation illusion—making an object or person float in the air—in their bag of tricks.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Ron Weasley casts the spell to save Hermione from a troll:

Ron pulled out his own wand—not knowing what he was going to do he heard himself cry the first spell that came into his head: “Wingardium Leviosa!”

The club flew suddenly out of the troll’s hand, rose high, high up into the air, turned slowly over—and dropped, with a sickening crack, onto its owner’s head.