Meanings of Latin and Greek Names in "Harry Potter"
You-Know-Who, or Do You?
As anyone who's read or watched Harry Potter has noticed, there's an awful lot of Latin flying around in the fictional wizarding world!
I've written up translations of all the Latin magic spells in J.K. Rowling's Potter books, plus a fun riff on the real meaning of Expecto Patronum. Can you tell I'm an etymology nut? Etymology is the study of the meaning, origins, and roots of words.
The fact is, names have power. After all, that's why so many call Lord V. You-Know-Who. Even when we don't exactly know what names mean, they evoke emotions and associations that add to the flavor of the story.
So, let's take a look at the names of some of the characters in Harry Potter. My list isn't exhaustive, because I'm mostly going to stick to Latin and Greek rather than languages I don't know. But you may find a few surprises here!
Names Quiz: What do they mean?view quiz statistics
Character Names A–F
- Albus: Latin for "white." Possibly also inspired by Albion, the old Arthurian and Celtic name for Britain (which goes back to an Indo-European root word also meaning "white").
- Alecto: Greek Ἀληκτώ, "implacable anger," one of the vengeful goddesses, the Furies. Appropriate for a Death Eater.
- Argus: A hundred-eyed giant whom the goddess Hera used as a watchman. His assignment was to watch over Io, whom (as Hera rightly guessed) had been turned into a cow by Hera's husband Zeus to conceal his adultery with the unfortunate girl. Hermes eventually rescued Io by lulling Argus to sleep and slaying him, after which Hera placed the eyes of Argus on the tail feathers of the peacock, her favorite bird.
- Bellatrix: Latin for "warrioress." It's also the name of the third brightest star in Orion, sometimes called the Amazon or Conqueror. It's a scary big blue star.
- Cedric: A knight's name made up by Sir Walter Scott for his novel Ivanhoe, but it's been a popular name since the late 1800s. Possibly from Welsh Cerdic, "Kindly, -loved."
- Cornelius: A Roman aristocratic name; many famous Romans bore it (Cornelius Sulla, Cornelius Scipio, Cornelius Gracchus). Probably related to cornu, "horn."
- Dedalus: British pronunciation of Daedalus, name of mythical Greek inventor and craftsman (his most famous invention was wings, but his son perished using them. There is an element of mishap in most Daedalus myths).
- Dolores: From Latin dolor, "grief, sorrow."
- Doris: A minor sea-nymph in Roman mythology; the dor- root is associated with sleep.
- Draco: Dragon, of course. Also snake: the Romans and many ancient cultures considered dragons oversized wyrms or serpents and didn't usually imagine them with wings.
- Filius: Flitwick's first name is Latin for "son," but in the broader sense has to do with family ties, devotion.
- Filch: To pilfer, steal.
- Ginerva: Ginny's first name is evidently modeled on Minerva (see below), although I can't help thinking of Guinevere.
- Gryffindor: griffon d'or, "Griffon of gold" in French. There are pubs, hotels, and all sorts of things bearing this name in the real world. "Griffin" or "griffon" comes from ancient Greek γρύφων. Griffons, lions with eagle heads, appear in the heraldry and decorations of European and Near Eastern cultures from Babylonian to Minoan to Greek art, representing bravery and royalty.
Harry Potter Character Names, H–O
- Hermione: J.K. Rowling reportedly named her after the unlucky queen in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, but I think the name is ultimately derived from the Greek god Hermes, originally a messenger-god of thieves, the marketplace, and all-around cleverness who became in the late classical period the patron god of alchemists, magicians, and magic.
- Ignatius: Percy's middle name is that of an early Church Father who wrote tracts on the structure of the church, the roles and duties of various members of the clergy, and the sacraments: in other words, a busybody. His name sounds similar to Latin ignarus, ignorant, and ignavus, idle, lazy.
- Karkaroff: Perhaps from Greek καρχαροs, "jagged, sharp," a term used in the names of several dinosaurs. It's also the name of a sort of giant hellhound in Tolkien's Middle-earth mythology: Karkaroth, supposedly Elvish for "the red maw." Whichever etymology you choose, it's a nasty name.
- Lily: Latin lilium. This fragrant flower in its many forms has been associated with innocence, womanly virtues, and/or virginity. In Greek times the white lily was Hera's. In Christian symbolism, the lily is associated with the Virgin Mary. The name evokes a powerful female symbol of grace with overtones of sacrifice.
- Lucius: From Latin lux, "light," no doubt a nod to Lucifer, "lightbringer." (Originally, Lucifer was just a minor Roman demigod, their name for the planet Venus at dawn, but Christians borrowed his name for Satan.)
- Ludo: Bagman's first name is probably from ludus, Latin for "game," as in a spectator sport.
- Luna: Roman goddess of the moon, or, simply, the Latin word for the moon.
- Lupin: from Latin lupus, wolf. (lupinus is the adjectival form, i.e., "wolfish.")
- Maxime: French, from Latin maximus, "largest." I'm puzzled; Maxime is usually a man's name in France, n'est-ce pas?
- Miranda: Latin name, "wonderful, amazing, miraculous" (literally "ought to be wondered at.")
- Minerva: Latin for Athena, a cerebral and formidable goddess of war, wisdom, shrewd intellect, tactics, weaving and crafts. She sometimes befriended Greek heroes and served as a guide or protector.
- Mulciber: Another name for the old Roman god of volcanoes and the forge, Vulcan.
- Nagini: From Hindu mythology: naga is a supernatural, sentient snake.
- Narcissa: From Latin Narcissus, a mythical youth who fell in love with his own reflection and wasted away.
- Nigellus: Diminutive form of Latin niger, "black."
- Nymphadora: Greek for "gift of the nymphs," I suppose, although I've never seen that name in classical Greek (It's probably modeled on Pandora). Nymphs were female river-spirits, minor goddesses.
- Olympe: Evidently from Mt. Olympus: she's pretty tall!
Minerva (Roman Goddess)
Harry Potter Character Names P–Z
- Penelope: Wife of Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey, like her husband she was unusually intelligent and clever. Thus, a good name for a Ravenclaw.
- Petunia: A flower, obviously, but many sites on flower symbolism identify it with resentment and anger.
- Phineas: The name of two different miscreants of Greek mythology: one wasn't so bad a chap, except that he gave away the gods' secrets and had the Harpies set on him in punishment; the other was a lout who tried to wed his own niece Andromeda and made things difficult for Perseus, the hero who saved and married her. (Incidentally, Andromeda is on the Black family tree; she's Sirius' cousin and Tonks' mother.)
- Pince: French for "pliers, tweezers." Perhaps inspired by pince-nez, an old-fashioned sort of glasses which might be worn by librarians?
- Pomfrey: Sounds medical, but I can't quite place it; however, her first name, "Poppy," is a flower whose juice has been used as a painkiller, anesthetic, or soporific since ancient times (in its concentrated form, it's opium.)
- Pomona: Minor Roman nature-goddess; her name comes from pomum, "fruit." No, she's not a fruitcake; she's a goddess who nurtures the growth of fruits and orchards. A good first name for a Herbology professor.
- Privet: A type of plant used for privacy hedges, so a very apt term for a street in suburbia; incidentally, the plant is poisonous to pets.
- Regulus: "prince, chieftain," literally "little king" in Latin. We get the name of Sirius' brother right after he complains that his parents were "convinced that to be a Black made you practically royal."
- Remus: One of the two legendary founders of Rome who was exposed at birth, rescued and suckled by a she-wolf.
- Ronald: From Old Norse, Rögnvaldr, "having the [ruling] power of the gods."
- Rubeus: Probably from ruber, "red, ruddy, blushing," but rubeus technically means "of/related to brambles, bramble-overgrown," which certainly describes his beard! (I gather brambles in Italy are reddish.)
- Rufus: Yet another Latin word for red, especially "red-headed." Sometimes associated with anger.
- Severus: Latin for "strict, stern, grim, terrible, severe."
- Sirius: the dog-star, part of the Canis Major (greater dog) constellation, the brightest star in the sky. The name is ancient Greek: Σείριος, "burner, scorcher."It was revered as a god or goddess in many ancient cultures, due to its notable brilliance.
- Sybill: Sibyl was the standard title for a prophetess in the ancient Greek and Roman world. There were many Sybils, although the most famous is probably the one at Cumae, Italy, consulted by the Romans.
- Umbridge: A perfectly ordinary English name (in the Tim Burton Alice, the heroine pretends to be "from Umbridge,"), but it sounds like umbrage, meaning "offense" in the sense of "I take offense at that." It derives ultimately from Latin umbra, shadow.
- Xenophilius: Greek xenos "strange[r], alien," + philius, "loving, friendly towards." I think it's saying that Luna's father loves strange things.
Romulus and Remus, Ancient Rome
© 2012 Ellen