The wizarding world of Harry Potter includes regular mention and use of spells, charms, and at times curses, all a part of the magic that wizards and witches learn at Hogwarts and use in their fight against Lord Voldemort.
So where do these words come from and what do they really mean? J.K. Rowling uses them much as they have been used in other fantasy fiction, including The Lord of the Rings, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, and The Chronicles of Narnia, among others. But what do they really mean?
This word entered English around 1384, in what we now call Middle English, from the French Old French magique, which in turn comes from the Late Latin magica, a noun meaning magic or sorcery. This in turn comes from the Greek magikē, which is an adjective formed from magos, meaning “one of the members of the learned or priestly class”.
The history of magic goes even further back though. The Greek magos comes from the Old Persian magush, which in turn is hypothesized to come from Proto-Indo-European magh-, meaning “to be able to” or “to have power”. Also, the spelling varies, though mostly for aesthetic reasons, with magick, magik, and majic all appearing in fiction in recent years.
This word, meaning an incantation or charm, comes from the Old English word spel(l), meaning “narration, story, speech”. It is from the Proto-Germanic spellan (a hypothetical reconstruction by linguists, not an official word). Despite the identical spelling, the word spell meaning to name the letters of a word has a different though not unrelated history.
The idea of a spell is generally negative, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, though J.K. Rowling does not seem to make this distinction. Spells in the world of Harry Potter can harm, heal, and do just about anything else in between, and are typically named and put to use in Latin, as explained in Latin for Spells.
This word entered English around 1300, coming from the Old French charme, meaning “incantation”, which in turn came from the Latin carmen, meaning “song, verse, or enchantment”. This comes from the Latin canere meaning “to sing” and also gives us chant in modern English. All these meanings tie together because of the idea of reciting verses of magical power.
The separate meaning of charm, as in charming appeared much later, around 1598, and the meaning of a “small object attached to a bracelet or chain” did not appear until 1865. In Harry Potter’s world charms seem to be one type of spell, though Rowling never gives us enough information about the organization or classification of spells to be certain.
This word comes from the Old English curs, meaning a “prayer that harm of evil happens to someone”. Its origins are uncertain, but some speculate that it comes from the Old French curuz, meaning anger, or from the Latin cursus, meaning “course”. The mysterious origins of this word are interesting insofar as curses are consistently regarded in fantasy fiction as harmful or evil.
Rowling goes a step further, creating the sub-class she calls the Unforgivable Curses. Several other curses are mentioned, particularly Fiendfyre in Deathly Hallows, and some spells seem to be curse-like even if they are not curses.
J.K. Rowling is clever yet consistent in her use of the terms spell, charm, and curse for the most part. They all, of course, are forms of magic, which is after all what wizarding world is all about.