How does JK Rowling use Latin and other classical languages in Harry Potter?
To create a sense of the long history of wizardry in the Potterverse, JK Rowling drew heavily on classical languages.
Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus — classical scholars might struggle to find this Latin phrase in their texts of Cicero or Virgil, Ovid or Juvenal; but ardent readers of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series will know exactly what it means. ‘Never tickle a sleeping dragon’ is the translation of the motto that Rowling devised for the Hogwarts school crest: a useful and practical piece of advice for aspiring wizards, she explained.
School mottoes — especially for old-fashioned boarding schools like Hogwarts — have often borrowed the cultural (and, for some, elitist) resonances of Latin. But in Rowling’s wizarding world, this quite conventional use of Latin is just one part of the rich tapestry of magical language that she weaves.
The spells that Harry and his friends learn, for example, are often real Latin words — such as accio, ‘I summon’ — or blends of Latin words, or Latin with other languages: expelliarmus, the disarming charm, sounds like real Latin, but is a mixture of expello, ‘I drive out’, and arma, ‘weapons’, while the light charm lumos is an adaptation of the Latin lumen, ‘light’.
Rowling also drew heavily on Latin etymologies (along with many other languages) when naming her characters. Dumbledore’s first name, Albus, means ‘white’ in Latin, aptly referencing both his white beard and the goodness of the character; by contrast, the dangerous Draco Malfoy bears the Latin for ‘dragon’ as his first name, while Severus Snape unsurprisingly is named with the Latin word (severus) meaning ‘serious’ or ‘stern’. Remus Lupin appropriately conveys his identity as a werewolf in both his first and last names: the mythological name of the boy brought up a by a wolf, along with his twin brother Romulus, is paired with an adaptation of the Latin word lupus, meaning wolf.
These are just a few of the many examples of Rowling’s use of classical languages throughout the Harry Potter series, which drew on her own experiences as a student of classics at Exeter University.