Monday marked 20 years since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published. Apart from making me feel well old (I know, I know, you’d think I was barely a twinkle in my mother’s eye 20 years ago (!), but in fact I’d just started university when it came out), it reminded me of how much I admire J.K. Rowling – she’s created a world that people of all ages, myself included, have come to love. (When the last book came out I once hid in the loo at work in the middle of the day so I could finish a chapter.) So this week, I thought I’d take a look at the etymology of the names of some of my favourite characters in the series. Rowling studied French and classics at university so the origins of her character’s names are often very pertinent – she put a huge amount of thought into even minor characters’ names.
FYI: I find it hard to believe there are many people who haven’t read an HP book or seen a film, but just in case you are that one person, be warned that this way spoilers lie...
‘You’re a wizard Harry’
- Sirius Black: Oh Sirius. I was convinced right up until the last page of the last book that you’d somehow come back from the dead. Sigh. Anyway, Sirius is the name of the brightest star we can see from the earth. Because he’s lovely, you see. And of course it’s also called the Dog Star, which refers to Sirius’ status as an animagus.
- Remus Lupin: My second favourite after Sirius (which apparently is the kiss of death for HP characters), this one’s a bit of a double whammy. ‘Remus’ must be a reference to ‘Romulus and Remus’ who, as I’m sure all my highly educated readers already know, were the legendary twin brothers who were abandoned then brought up by a wolf (obvs), and then went on to found the city of Rome. So that’s our first clue to Remus’ wolfy secret. Secondly, presumably Lupin is a reference to ‘lupine’ (rather than the flower), which of course means ‘of, like, or relating to a wolf’. Boom.
- Albus Dumbledore: ‘Albus’ is Latin for ‘light’, which makes sense as he’s number 1 good guy. And ‘Dumbledore’ is apparently an English dialect word for bumblebee. Nope, me neither. Maybe JK just liked the sound of it? (Some further googling reveals that apparently she imagined him bumbling round his office like a bee. Why not, I guess?)
- Severus Snape: Fantastically portrayed on film by the much-missed Alan Rickman, Severus was a complicated character who ultimately turned out to be working for the good guys (he just had a really long endgame). So, ‘Severus’ means ‘stern’ in Latin (which is where we get ‘severe’ from), which makes sense as he was a fairly scary teach. And according to the lady herself, JK Rowling took the name ‘Snape’ from a village in Suffolk (where I’m writing this right now – Suffolk, not Snape), but it also means ‘to snub or rebuke or give a hard time to’ which is a nice coincidence (although probably entirely intentional).
‘I solemnly swear I’m up to no good’
- Voldemort: The big bad himself, ‘Vol de mort’ means ‘flight [or ‘theft’ depending on which bits of the internet you read] of death’ which makes sense considering the whole horcrux-hiding-bits-of-your-soul thang.
- The Malfoys: This one’s not too hard to decipher – ‘mal’ comes from old French for ‘evil’ or ‘bad’. In the same language ‘foi’ means ‘faith’ or ‘trust’ which could well have something to do with the Malfoys putting their trust in the wrong dude. Draco is presumably a reference to ‘draconian’ or possibly dragon or snake (i.e. devious). (And hello to Jason Isaacs!)
- Fenrir Greyback: One of the more minor characters, I put Fenrir in because I like the way it sounds. Fenrir was a big ole nasty wolf in Norse mythology, and a big ole nasty wolfman in Harry Potter land. It’s him who infected Lupin’s family with lycanthropy originally, and he also takes a chunk out of Bill Weasley. Bastard.
- Argus Filch: Argus Panoptes is a Greek giant with a shedload of eyes. A perfect moniker for someone who’s always watching round corners. And obviously ‘filch’ is an informal term for stealing, which again fits for a man who likes to confiscate shiz.
So, there you have it. There are loads more links in HP to Latin, French and Greek, as well as astrology, biology – the list goes on. Feel free to leave a comment about your favourite.
Check out this Harry Potter-based sock puppet video – guaranteed to be stuck in your head for DAYS.