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Potent Potions

The potions in the Harry Potter series are cleverly named using roots from Latin and various other familiar languages. J.K. Rowling does a great job of creating potions that sound like what they are, and also sound magical.

But how does she do it? She seems to use three approaches, which are neatly captured by three of her best-known, and most often used, potions in the seven novels.

First comes polyjuice potion, which Hermione Granger discovers in Chamber of Secrets and describes as one of the most difficult potions she has ever read about. It is used to assume the appearance of another person. Harry and Ron use it to become Crabbe and Goyle in that book. Mad-Eye Moody turns out to be Barty Crouch Jr. as a result of polyjuice potion in Goblet of Fire, and the Order of the Phoenix puts it to good use in Deathly Hallows to create seven Harrys in the hopes of confusing the Death Eaters attempting to kill him.

The name is obvious: the root poly meaning many, combined with juice, then potion added after. The result is an alliterative name that is easy to remember, if hard to swallow. A similarly named potion is Wolfsbane Potion, the draught Professor Lupin used to control the werewolf in him. The wolfsbane can be deconstructed to bane of the wolf, though it is also a plant with yellow and purple flowers.

Next comes veritaserum, a few drops of which will force “even the Dark Lord himself to spill all his secrets,” according to Potions-Master Severus Snape. He uses it at the end of Goblet of Fire to unmask Barty Crouch Jr. and discover his intentions, and threatens Harry with it on several occasions. We never learn what is required to make this particular potion, though it is clearly not simple or easy.

The name is a combination of the Latin word veritas, which means truth, and serum, which we know from English. Such compounds are commonly used in naming chemicals and drugs today, and even more interesting is the Latin proverb: “in vino veritas”, which means “in wine, truth”, in other words alcohol makes people more likely to reveal their true feelings. Similarly named potions include the love potion Amortentia, a combination of amor, Latin for love, and tentia from potential, meaning power or ability.

Finally, felix felicis, which appears in Half-Blood Prince as a reward to Harry for his good work in Potions class, which he achieves using Professor Snape’s old and highly annotated copy of the class textbook. This potion provides its user with unbridled and virtually unlimited good fortune when drunk.

The name follows a classic pattern in Latin, that of taking a noun and reduplicating it, with the second instance in the genitive (i.e.: possessive) form. The phrase “sanctum sanctorum” may be familiar. It means the “inner sanctum” but literally means the “sacred of the sacred” or “holy of holies”. English too uses this pattern when we talk about the “best of the best”, as does French in its phrase “crème de la crème”.

The translation of potion names posed serious challenges, since leaving them as is in the English version would have been awkward in languages like German or Spanish, and impossible in languages like Japanese or Chinese. So polyjuice potion became:

poción multijugos Spanish
polynectar French
ポリジュース薬   Japanese (lit.: polyjuice medicine)

The Spanish took the literal meaning of the potion and recreated it neatly, the French played a bit more loosely with the name to come up with something that sounds good in French, and the Japanese retained the “polyjuice” part in sound only, with a complete loss of meaning, and added the word for medicine or drug to it. By contrast, the same languages found different solutions for veritaserum.

poción de la verdad Spanish
veritaserum French
真実薬 Japanese

What is notable about the Japanese is that the translator chose to assign characters to the name, while indicating in a subscript text called furigana that the pronunciation of these characters, which mean “truth medicine”, is “beritaserumu”. In other words, the translator gave the characters an entirely new pronunciation unique to the Harry Potter books.

Of course, there are many other potions, some of which are simply named with descriptive phrases, such as the Elixir to Induce Euphoria, Draught of Living Death, or the Strengthening Solution. These names are unremarkable, though do continue Rowling’s tendency to choose alliterative, rhyming words for her potions.

Rowling herself studied Latin in public school (high school in the U.S.) and spent time in Paris studying French. It is not surprising that the names of many of the potions in the wizarding world of Harry Potter reflect this. It is also part of the appeal of her magical world: we the readers can immediately relate to much of the wondrous, magical drinks in it. 

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