Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

The magical discourse of Harry Potter: how spells came to be

The magical discourse of Harry Potter: how spells came to be

Samantha Spolarich

Historically, the discourse of magic has included words such as “abracadabra” or “alakazam”. This trend of using “nonsense” or “foreign sounding” words can still be seen today in popular culture, such as the curse “Avada Kedavra” in Harry Potter. This paper seeks to answer the question: in what ways has the historical perspective on magic influenced the ways in which the spells from Harry Potter have been constructed? By examining literature on historical magical discourse, magical discourse in religion, and the discourse of modern entertainment magic, the relationship between magic and nonsense or foreign sounding words can be explored. J. K. Rowling carefully constructed the spells that are found in Harry Potter by combining words from various languages including Latin, Greek, and English. In doing so, she followed a time-honored tradition of using foreign sounding words to help readers suspend their belief and enter the magical world of Harry Potter.


April 2, 2018 - Posted by | abstract


  1. This is something that I have never thought of. When I think of abracadabra it is kind of silly now days. How did J. K. Rowling use this same structure but modernize it to the point where we don’t think of it as silly?

    Comment by Craig Meiners | April 17, 2018 | Reply

    • I found that the reason we think of Abracadbra as being silly has to do with its modern associations with stage magicians and, especially, with magic performances geared towards children. When the word was first used, it was an Aramaic word that was used as a “spell” and meant, “let the thing be destroyed”, so was not silly at all, but a protective spell. J. K. Rowling took Abracadbra and twisted it, changed the pronunciation, and rethought the nature of “let the thing be destroyed”. This was were she came up with Avada Kedavra, which is the killing curse in Harry Potter, “It is an ancient spell in Aramaic, and it is the original of abracadabra, which means ‘let the thing be destroyed’.” (J. K. Rowling in an interview). I think the reason that it does not sound silly is because it is much harsher than “Abracadabra” and because of the dark nature of the spell itself.

      Comment by Samantha Spolarich | April 23, 2018 | Reply

  2. A fascinating exploration on the construction of words in which worlds are built. I look forward to reading!

    Comment by Jami | April 20, 2018 | Reply

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