In the following series of posts, I do a little etymology- origin of the character names and the spells(of course, many are quite obvious). But first, a warning to those who haven’t read all 7 books or watched the movies- these posts contain a lot of spoilers.
When I read my first HP over 11 years ago(incidentally, it was the Goblet of Fire, not the Philosopher’s Stone), the first word that jumped at me was Accio which seemed very obvious in its origins. By the end of the book, I realized that accio was probably the only ‘obvious’ word in the book. I was fascinated by the mention of Voldemort since I was trying to study a little French. Minerva of course, is another major reference. I started compiling a little list in my head(and later on paper) of names and words that seemed etymologically interesting. On the internet, I stumbled across a vast universe of Harry Potter words, their origins, the parallels between events in the books and history(the Third Reich seems to be the most popular), possible inspiration for JK Rowling and so on. After reading so much, I have to say, I’m much in awe of the author. Rowling seems to be extremely well read and meticulous.
Coming back to the post, I tried putting everything- names, spells, potions- in just one post and I realized it was getting way too long. So I’m splitting up the theme into a series of posts. This is the first one where I write about the names of the wizards that I think were the most powerful in Wizarding history. I have tried to use a little of my own interpretation as well, so some of my word origins could be wrong. If you do find an error, please let me know. Cheers!
Lord Voldemort– This is by far the most fascinating name. de mort is very obviously French. Of Death is what I understood, but I didn’t know what Vol meant. I had to ask my aunt, who was a French teacher. She asked me to look up a French pun, whose origin is as follows: When Napoléan Bonaparte seized the estates of the surviving nobles before the Revolution, one of them remarked, C’est le premier vol de l’aigle, which means it is the first flight/theft of the eagle. This would translate the name to flight/theft of death. Other possible origins could be velle- / volens- (wanting [others’] death). It could also be voile, meaning a veil(of death.) that could be related to the veil in the Ministry of Magic. Rowling stated that the ‘t’ at the end of the name was meant to be silent. And it was, in the first few audio books. Till the movie came out, that is, after which they had to modify and re-release the audio books. So, if you pronounce his name as Voldemor, it could originate from vol d’amour– flight/theft of love. Flight from love definitely makes sense. He was also born of a loveless union. But I feel the root was death, rather than love, especially since he continually refers to his fear of death.
A more obvious explanation would be from the Knights of the Round Table. If anyone remembers the English textbook stories, in the years before King Arthur, an evil wizard named Voldemortist tried to kill Merlin(similar to our Dumbledore in appearance and power) but was instead defeated by Merlin using a paralyzing charm(Petrificus Totalus) and fed to a three-headed dog(Fluffy).
One last theory that can be incorporated as well was revealed after a little googling- the character M.Valdemar from Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Facts in the case of M.Valdemar’ (which many people still widely believe is a true narrative), was put into a hypnotic trance at the moment of his death. What follows is a highly gory medical description, but he ultimately returns as a rotting mass of flesh, which we all know was what Voldemort was before he regained his body.
A last crazy idea is that Voldemort pronounced without the ‘t’ rhymes with Dumbledore.
Albus Dumbledore– I remember reading in Bombay Times that Dumbledore in Old English means bumblebee. Rowling reportedly named him so because she imagined him to be ‘busy as a bee, bustling around in the Hogwarts Castle. He is also passionate about music, so is always humming’, or something to that effect. Albus seems to have come from the root Alb- which means white, as in Albino. The words Alps also comes from the same root. Notice that Albus, mentor to our hero, as white, which signifies pure and clean, is diametrically opposite to the antagonist, the Dark Lord. This was definitely intentional and a very similar analogy can be drawn between Gandalf the White(previously Gray) and Sauron, the Dark Lord. In fact, many similarities are observed when it comes to Gandalf and Dumbledore. Gandalf can be broken into Gand- that stands for staff(surprise) or wand. Alf- is a modification of elf (Gandalf is implicitly understood to be a more powerful form of an elf, being a wizard), whose root is the word Alb. An interesting trivia is that Sir Ian McKellen, who plays Gandalf in the films is openly gay. Rowling has also mentioned that Dumbledore was gay, and his ‘greatest tragedy’ was falling in love with Gellert Grindelwald; this also offers and explanation as to why he flirted with the idea of wizard domination over muggles- “He lost his moral compass completely when he fell in love and I think subsequently became very mistrustful of his own judgement in those matters so became quite asexual. He led a celibate and a bookish life.” Also, Ian McKellen was actually offered the role of Dumbledore.
Godric Gryffindor– Godric roughly translates to Power of God in Old English. Anyone who’s read Alice in Wonderland would remember the dance of the Mock Turtle and the Griffin. A griffin/gryphon is a creature that has the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. It has been a common creature in mythology and is depicted over buildings wold-over. The symbol of the house is a lion, which has always been the epitome of bravery. D’or in French apparently means ‘made of gold’ and gold is one of the colors of the house. Godric’s Hollow, in my opinion, also symbolizes a lion in his den.
Helga Hufflepuff- Helga originates from Helge- which means prosperous. The house symbol is a badger, which burrows a lot, signifying, in my opinion, the industrious Hufflepuffs. The word Hufflepuff itself came to me in a quark of realization when I was playing a game of Harry Potter puns(http://tinyurl.com/4xzbjxy)- it could allude to the wolf that said he will “huff and puff and blow your house in” to the three little pigs, another symbolism of hardwork. She was also responsible for first harboring the house elves in Hogwarts in 10th century, providing them shelter(depicting her kind heart) and again, the house-elves symbolizing hard labor.
Rowena Ravenclaw– In Welsh poetry, Rowena was ‘mother of the nation’, which could be a reference to her founding Hogwarts. It is said that she imagined the whole castle, through a warty hog that led to it. She was the one that united all the other founders, and is also credited with designing the perennially changing floor plan of the castle. Ravenclaw could simply be split as raven and claw. A raven(belonging to the crow and jay family) is a highly intelligent bird.
Salazar Slytherin– The name Salazar is originally a Portuguese family name. António de Oliveira Salazar was a fascist dictator of Portugal (where Rowling lived for several years). Rowling stated that the name ‘Salazar’ was chosen after the Portuguese dictator’s name. Meanwhile, Slytherin may refer to the words “sly” as well as “slithering”, which is the form of locomotion of snakes, possibly referring to his rare ability to talk to snakes called Parseltongue. He left a Basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets in 10th century AD. The Chamber was reopened in 1943 by his descendant, Riddle, leading to the death of Moaning Myrtle. Riddle opened the chamber again in 1993 through his diary.
Gellert Grindelwald – Grindan in Old English meant “to grind,” and further “destroyer,” someone who grinds up others. In Middle English, grindel meant “angry.” In Old Norse, grindill was taken from “storm,” and also meant “to bellow,” or produce a loud, frightening yell. In Danish legend, the Grendel was a fearsome, murderous monster of humanoid form. He was later defeated by the Scandinavian hero Beowulf in the medieval story of the same name. Wald means forest, in German. Gellert mighthave been borrowed from Hungarian, meaning ‘spear’. Grindelwald seems to be the wizarding version of Adolf Hitler. The date of Grindelwald’s duel with Dumbledore coincides with the downfall of Nazi Germany. Grindelwald adopted an ancient symbol as his symbol (the symbol of the Deathly Hallows) just as the Nazis adopted another ancient symbol, the swastika. The prison Nurmengard shares a similar name to the Bavarian city of Nuremberg, where war criminal trials of former Nazis were held. Nurmengard’s dual role as prison to both the victims and later the creator of the prison itself may be a reference to Nuremberg’s dual significance in World War II, which, aside from being the site of the Nuremberg Trials, was also the site of the proposal and adoption of the Nuremberg Laws, infamous discriminatory laws against Jewish people. It also bears a sign that reads “For the Greater Good”, which may correspond to the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign (German for “Work Makes [Man] Free”) which hung above the entrance to Auschwitz.
Grindelwald never gained power in Britain for he feared Dumbledore. Incidentally, Britain was one of the few countries in Europe not Axis-controlled. Grindelwald’s eventual sole imprisonment in his own prison is possibly a reference to the fate of Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, who from 1966 until his death in 1987 was the sole prisoner of Spandau prison.
The theory drawing parallels between historical events and the wizarding world seems to be farfetched, had it not been for indirect references hidden within the book. Indeed, Rowling herself mentioned in an interview that many famous wars in the history of the world were caused due to interference of wizards, and also were fought by Wizards alongside muggles. (This was a note I had made in my document, I can’t seem to find the source now. If anyone could provide me a link to where Rowling says it, it would be appreciated.)
Severus Snape – Severus, the root of the word ‘severe’ means ‘stern’ in Latin. Septimius Severus, also known as Severus, was Roman Emperor sometime around 200AD, known for his killing of the Early Christians. After deposing and killing the incumbent emperor Didius Julianus(reminded me of Dudley), Severus fought his rivals, the generals Pescennius Niger (alluding to Phineas Nigellus Black) and Clodius Albinus (Albus Dumbledore). Severus defeated Albinus a few years later(probably referencing to Snape killing Dumbledore).
J. K. Rowling has said that she took Snape from an English village in Suffolk. There is also a village called ‘Snape’ in Yorkshire, which was rebuilt by the very same emperor, Septimus Severus. Snape is also a verb in English, meaning “to snub or rebuke or give a hard time to”, which is what Snape constantly does with Harry. An interesting theory mentions that just like the anagram of Tom Marvolo Riddle, if you rearrange the letters in “Severus Snape” you get “Pursues Evans”. This could be a reference to the fact that Snape is in love with Lily Evans and tried hard to make her reciprocate.
The reason I included Snape here is because he was a very accomplished Occlumens and Leglimens, evident by the fact that he was in close quarters with Voldemort on so many occasions and his true intention was never revealed to him. If Snape hadn’t overheard Trelwney’s first prophecy, if Snape hadn’t loved Lily, if Snape hadn’t killed Dumbledore, if Snape hadn’t told Harry the truth at the very end, Voldemort would have never met his downfall.
(Sources: Jason Fisher who muses as a fish at lingwe.blogspot.com, Professor Alan Jacobs from Wheaton University, Merriam-Webster dictionary, random others who have asked and answered Yahoo questions, JK Rowling’s official website, the Chocolate Frog Cards, Harry Potter Wikia and of course, the Provider of All Information, Wikipedia.)