Thursday, July 26, 2007

Harry Potter Etymology

Don't worry; no spoilers here! This is not a review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I've finished the book, but the whole series encompasses so much, so many things to think about, that I'm hardly in a place to write a review right now!

I read all seven of the Harry Potter books to myself. Like most people, I don't actually "pronounce" each word in my head; I absorb whole sentences at a time as I read. Perhaps as a result of never reading the books out loud, or perhaps because I'm just dumb, it wasn't until I was reading the final book that I realized what a clever name Kreacher is for a house-elf. Yes, I really didn't realize until the seventh book that Kreacher is a play on the word "creature."

I started thinking about other word plays in the books, and realized that Number 12 Grimmauld Place, pronounced aloud, becomes "Grim Old (Auld) Place." Rather a fitting name for the Black family home, don't you think?

Rowling has also developed the names of several places with a play on "alley" and "-ally." Knockturn Alley, the dark, seedy alley frequented by dark wizards, is, of course, a play on the word "nocturnally." And Diagon Alley (which I've always pronounced to myself as DIE-agon Alley rather than "Die-AGON Alley" - I'm not sure which is correct) is naturally a play on "diagonally" - whether because the street is literally diagonal or because it is in the middle of London but somehow in its own dimension, I'm not quite sure.

From the earliest Harry Potter books I've always enjoyed the Latin references throughout the books: expelliarmus, liberacorpus, levicorpus, imperio, accio, crucio, lumos, confundo, expecto patronum, (possibly my favorite), and so many others.

After discovering many of these Latin references and plays on words for myself, I found this morning, whose name origins page revealed to me a word whose origins I never would have guessed on my own. Alohomora (a spell that opens locks), the website claims, is derived from the Hawaiian "Aloha" (hello or goodbye) and the Latin "Mora" (obstacle or barrier): "goodbye, obstacle!" Brilliant.

Of the many, many things I love about Rowling's books, it's the scope and power of her imagination and creativity that has me in awe. From the smallest details (names of characters, streets, spells, and towns; little things considered "normal" in the wizarding world that bring the stories to life) to the biggest themes (good and evil, power and corruption, love, choices, humility, and sacrifice), her books are filled with material to delight and fascinate readers of all ages. As C. S. Lewis's wardrobe has always beckoned me into the imaginative world of Narnia since my childhood, so J. K. Rowling's Platform 9 3/4 sweeps me into Harry's world at Hogwarts - a world, like Narnia, that is much fuller than the physical world we see.

(Did Chapter 34 remind anyone else overwhelmingly of The Chronicles of Narnia? Not surprising, I suppose, since Rowling has been quoted saying Lewis was one of the most influential writers she read as a child.)


  1. This is a fascinating analysis--it makes me want to read Narnia and Harry Potter all over again, just to play with the words. Say what you will about the quality of Rowling's writing (I'm talking to you, Washington Post reviewer!), but you can't deny she created an amazing world.

  2. Yes! My inner linguist is repeatedly delighted by JKR's names and turns of phrase. :) I like Mugglenet's name origins page, although I've been itching to write in and tell them that "Bulstrode" comes from Middlemarch! They got the Mrs. Norris literary allusion, but I'm pretty sure JKR meant the Bulstrode one too...By the way, did you notice the language of their current poll? :)

    Like you, I haven't been ready to blog about Deathly's taken me days to process it. I probably won't blog on it for a long time anyway, just because I don't want to spoil it for anyone!

    And yes, Chapter 34 has some pretty profound echoes...

  3. I also like to poke around on Something that I found interesting is that horcrux means "outside the cross." Well named. A horcrux is basically the antithesis of the cross, since one sacrifices another to save oneself.

  4. In a way, I've gotten the other half of the plays on words since I listened to all but the first volume on audiobook. So I get to hear not only how they sound out loud but how they are pronounced with the proper British accent. You don't realize just from reading that "Rita Skeeter" rhymes, for example, but then I didn't realize that the house elf's name was spelled Kreacher, since the whole time I'd been hearing Creature. Fun stuff.