10 Harry Potter Spells, Broken Down

The spells in Harry Potter have quite the names. Some of them sound cool, some sound ridiculous—but there is actually a basis for most of them. J.K. Rowling seems fond of delving into Latin, looking at words that describe what the spell does and often changing or combining them to create the incantation. Neat, eh?

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So here are some of the most famous, useful, or downright disturbing spells created by J.K. Rowling and exactly where she got the incantation from. It might sound like some of them are total gibberish but I promise, they’re not—they have a genuinely logical basis!

10. Crucio

For many on first read the books, this spell is one of the most intriguing. It's difficult to say why—especially as most first time readers are pretty young, which makes this even more morbid—but it’s just hard to imagine the worst physical pain someone can actually feel. People went insane in the series’ canon from undergoing this spell for too long, and when Harry experienced it, he thought he would genuinely rather die than continue to feel that pain.

“Crucio” in Latin literally means “I torture”, so although it just sounds like a sinister word, it’s definitely one that’s apt for this curse.

9. Expecto Patronum

HP Hagrid Cant Cast Patronus

Literally translated to Latin, this spell means, “I await a patron.” Another extremely apt definition!

In case you’ve forgotten, this is the incantation for the patronus charm. The patronus charm is one that wards off dementors. If someone chants the incantation and thinks of a powerfully happy memory, they can conjure up a silver animal that will chase off the dementors or even charge them down if it’s super powerful. The animal is unique to each individual person, and is definitely a patron and protector for them.

Pottermore even introduced an official quiz to find out what your patronus is, for curious fans!

8. Petrificus Totalus

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Neville Longbottom Petrificus Totalus

So you don’t get any awards for guessing what it does after being told that!

It can’t have been particularly advanced magic, since we saw a first-year use it way back in the first book. Then again, that first year was Hermione, so maybe it was. Poor Neville was knocked to the floor and had to remain there staring at the ceiling until someone rescued him. It was also used on Harry later, and Draco Malfoy took the opportunity to stomp on and break his nose when he could do nothing about it. So, yeah—this spell may not be as horrific as some of the others, but it can do some damage!

7. Imperio

Like the cruciatus curse mentioned above, this is another Unforgivable curse and is illegal to use. The Imperius curse can grant the user full control over another human. It can be broken, if the person it’s being cast on is strong-willed—it proved pretty ineffective on Harry, after he’d had some practice - but it’s powerful enough that it’s considered a real threat in the wizarding world and, as its magic category would suggest, unforgivable to use.

There is no Latin word “imperio”, but there is “impero” which means, “I demand.” Pretty apt for a curse that’s all about control, and presumably where the incantation came from.

6. Lumos

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter Lumos Light Spell

This is a much lighter spell - literally! The user can say this incantation to turn their wand into a powerful flashlight, essentially, and the Latin root “lumen” means “light” which is probably where J.K. Rowling took this from. Its counter-curse is “Nox”, too!

J.K. Rowling also created a children’s charity with this name, which is a pretty cool name for a charity. At least this spell is bringing light into the real world too, as well as the magical world! This is the spell many fans wish they had in everyday life, to be honest. Wouldn’t it be handy to be able to create light anywhere?

5. Expelliarmus

This was a pretty iconic spell in the series. The reason for this is that it was Harry’s trademark spell in duels, something he was often criticized for by others. Even in deadly duels with people who more than deserved to die, Harry would use this incantation - which would only knock the wand out of the other person’s hand, and was very easy to repel.

This is a combination of two Latin words. “Expellere” means “to force out”, and “arma” means “weapon”. Therefore, literally translated, it means to drive out a weapon which makes total sense, since it’s the disarming incantation.

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4. Sectumsempra

This is one of the very few spells which has its creation shown in the books. This spell was created by Severus Snape during his time at Hogwarts, scribbled down in a copy of Advanced Potion Making for Harry to later find. And oh, it’s brutal - it’s a severing charm, but for humans. A wizard can use this on another person and it seems like they’ve been slashed with an invisible sword.

“Sectum” in Latin means “to cut”, which is undoubtedly where this incantation came from. There’s no Latin word for “sempra”, so presumably, this was a more made-up bit tacked onto the end.  

3. Riddikulus

This spell sounds kind of dumb to say, and it’s easy to think J.K. Rowling was being kind of lazy with this one and just using the English word “ridiculous” to create a spell. But that’s probably not true. The Latin word “ridiculum” means “laughable” and this is more than likely where she got the incantation. After all, this spell is used to turn a person’s worst fear into something that might make them laugh, so it’s more than likely a misspelling of the Latin word.

It is kind of amusing to hear a classroom of students shout this at a boggart, though.

2. Wingardium Leviosa

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Wingardium Leviosa Spell

One of the first spells we come across in the books is the hovering charm. It’s taught by Professor Flitwick to the students, and the correct way to pronounce it is drilled into us by Hermione—

“You’re saying it wrong. It’s Levi-oh-sa, not Levio-sa!”

Wing is, of course, an English word. “Arduus” means “proudly elevated” and “levo” means “rise up”. Therefore, this incantation is presumably a mixture of three words with some creativity driven into the incantation. It seems like a lot of effort was put to this sounding just right! And thanks to Hermione, we will definitely never forget this one.

1. Avada Kedavra

The final Unforgivable Curse, and arguably the worst. It’s easy to see why these three spells are highly illegal. This is another incantation where it’s easy to assume J.K. Rowling was being a bit lazy—it sounds a lot like the generic English spell that magicians use for their tricks, “Abra Kadabra.”  

But “abra kadabra” itself actually has an Arabic meaning! It means “let this thing be destroyed”, which means it only makes sense that J.K. Rowling got the incantation from this language. After all, this is the killing curse—it’s sole intention is to destroy in a split second, a life gone in a flash of green light.

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