Tonight sees the première of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II. As I write, the stars are arriving in Leicester Square, London, and greeting the thousands of excited fans, who have been gathering all day (well, in truth, all week) in the hope of catching a glimpse of the faces we have come to know so well, the physical manifestations of J. K. Rowling’s magical characters.
And what better way to mark the occasion than to take a closer look at some of the Harry Potter names?
It would be impossible to start with anything other than Harry — the boy wizard who takes on the most terrible wizard of all time, Lord Voldemort — and wins. Harry is the Traditional English vernacular form of Henry, which has been in use as an independent name since the Middle Ages. Harris and Harrison are two surnames which derive from it, both now used as first names. J. K. Rowling’s Harry is not the only fictional Harry Potter caught up in magic; The hero of the film Troll (1986) was also called Harry Potter.
As for Henry, its roots lie in Dark Age Germany. It is a combination of the Old German haimi ‘home’ and ricja ‘ruler’ and its earliest known form was Haimirich. This was Latinized as Henricus, from which the French Henri and Anglo-French Henry later evolved. Harry is very popular in the UK, in 3rd place in 2009. Given the popularity of the books and films in the US, it is surprising that it is in 658th place over there — and falling.
Hermione, on the other hand, has never made the top 1000 names in the US, though it has been used in the English-speaking world since at least the 18th Century. In the UK in 2009, it was place 370th — and climbing. While Harry is a firmly Germanic name, Hermione’s is Classical. In Greek mythology, Hermione was the daughter of Menelaus, King of Sparta and the infamous beauty, Helen of Troy. Her life, in contrast to her parents, was considerably less eventful. She married her cousin Orestes (after he murdered his mother as punishment for her murdering his father, and had a spell being chased around Greece by the Furies) and not much else is know about her. Her name, however, has rich meaning. It is formed from the name of the Greek God Hermes (the Roman Mercury). Most people know he is the messenger of the Gods, but his role goes far deeper than that. He conveys the souls of the dead to the underworld — a role arising from the fact he is also a God of boundaries, making him a male counterpart of Hecate. And the similarities don’t end there. There are distinct hints of magic about him, from his ‘magic wand’ – the caduceus – to his associations with the night. He was seen in ancient times as a protector of those on the fringe of society, both those who were only temporarily in that position (namely travelers) to those who resided there permanently, i.e. thieves, prostitutes – and Witches. A very apt name, then, for a witch.
Ronald takes us to the Celtic fringe and medieval Scandinavia. It derives ultimately from the Old Norse Rögnvaldr – regin ‘might’ and ‘counsel’ + valdr ‘ruler’. It has been used continually in Scotland since medieval times, and in the 19th Century, it became popular elsewhere in the English-speaking world. The pet-form Ronnie was popular as a name in its own right in the first half of the 20th Century — and then, of course, there’s Ron. Among the many real-life bearers is the Historian Ronald Hutton, well-known for his books on Paganism and Witchcraft. Ronald was in joint 848th place in the UK in 2009, along with such varied names as Abel, Armani, Cairo, Dewi, Hunter, Hussein and Stanislaw, though Ronnie was up in the 131st spot. In the US, Ronald was 342nd in 2010.
Albus is Latin and means ‘white’ — specifically ‘dead white’. It was regarded as a symbol of good fortune. Although now it will be forever associated with Albus Dumbledore, it has actually been in use since at least the 19th Century.
Severus is also Latin, unsurprisingly meaning ‘serious’, ‘sober’, ‘strict’ ‘stern’ and ‘austere’. It has actually been used as a genuine name since ancient times; three Roman Emperors alone bore the name: Lucius Septimius Severus (145-211 CR), Marcus Aurelius Alexander Severus (208-235 CE) and Flavius Valerius Severus (fl. 306-07 CE). There are also a number of saints called Severus. It was first used as a given name in the English-speaking world in the 16th Century, though it is more widely used in Italy and Spain in the form Severo.
Sirius is well-known as the name of the brightest star in the sky. Bearing the scientific name Alpha Canis Majoris, Sirius is also known as ‘the Dog Star’ because of its place in the constellation Canis Major – one of the hunting dogs of Orion. It is the Latin form of the Greek seirios ‘the scorcher’, which comes from the verb seiraô ‘to be hot’ and ‘to scorch’, acquiring the name because it first rises at the hottest time of the year. It, too, has also seen genuine first name use — the first examples appearing in the 19th Century.
Remus is an important figure in the legendary history of Rome. He and his twin brother Romulus were the founders of that famous city. Twin sons of Rhea Silvia and the God Mars, they were said to have been suckled by a she-wolf as babies — making it a good name for a werewolf. The brothers quickly fell out over which of them should give their name to their new city; Romulus settled the matter by killing Remus. In fact, both of the brothers’ names derive from the name of the city, rather than the other way around. Remus has been used as a real given name since the early 18th Century. Another famous literary Remus is Uncle Remus, the central character in Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings: The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation (1881), which is very much a thing of its time. Remo is used in Italy, Portugal and Spain.
Nymphadora is the feminine form of Nymphadorus – a genuine Ancient Greek male name. A shorter form of it – Nymphas – occurs in The New Testament. It comes from the Greek numphê ‘nymph’ and the verb didômi ‘to give’ – i.e. ‘given by a nymph/the nymphs’.
Bellatrix — such a good name for a bad witch! In Latin bellatrix means ‘female warrior’, and is the name of a star in Orion. In use for real since the late 19th Century.
Well, that’s all for now, folks. I plan another Harry Potter themed post to mark the cinema release next week, so watch this space!
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