Friday, June 29, 2007

Voldemort: anagrams and etymologies

A face only a mother could love!Prompted by a comment from The Cat Bastet to my recent post on Albus Dumbledore, I thought I would take up the anthroponomastic question of J.K. Rowling’s Voldemort. (“anthroponomastic” — now when’s the last time you saw that word plausibly worked into a blog post? ;)

The name, Voldemort, had always looked Latinate to me (as so many others of Rowling’s coinages and portmanteaux) with the element mors “death” (it’s the genitive mortis that gives it the t) standing front and center. For the other element, I’ve tended to suppose it was related to velle “to wish, want” (cf. volens “wishing, wanting”, volo “I want” — Marvolo, anyone?). Thus, with a meaning something like, “wishing for [others’] deaths”.

But then, to be honest, I never thought much more about it than that. Turns out that Wikipedia has a good article on Voldemort, including some other theories on his name — rather obvious ones, when you look at them, and therefore all the more surprising that I didn’t even think of them. They do suggest the etymology above, but they also point out the rather more straightforward French vol de mort “flight of/from death” (recalling Antoine de St.-Exupéry’s Vol de Nuit, I would add). They also like the idea of vol “theft”, highlighting Voldemort’s continual efforts to cheat or escape death — which, as they say, would be a great example of nomen est omen! And the whole reason for thinking in terms of French in the first place stems from Rowling’s own statement (also new to me) that the final t was meant to be silent, as in French. Who knew? (Well, apparently Jim Dale did. :)

There’s also a great section in the Wikipedia article on how various translators have attempted to render the “I AM LORD VOLDEMORT / TOM MARVOLO RIDDLE” anagram from The Chamber of Secrets into their own languages. This is just the sort of thing that would interest my friend Mark Hooker, who specializes in similar translation issues in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Be sure to take a gander at how this problem (one of the more complex challenges professional translators encounter) has been approached in some thirty different languages. Now that’s a word game!

Which theory on the etymology of “Voldemort” is correct? It could be any of these, but a few others also occur to me now that I’m putting my mind to it. What about voile “veil, cover, disguise” (and here, I’m thinking of the chapter, “Beyond the Veil”, in The Order of the Phoenix — and perhaps also Quirrell’s turban in The Sorcerer’s Stone)? Or what about voix “voice”, making Voldemort something like “the voice of death”? Or even volte “turn” (cf. Italian volta), as in volte-face? And even though the mors “death” element is, I think, fairly certain, could there be a further play on words to the effect of volte d’amour “turn from love”? Or vol d’amour “theft of love” — as in, taking Harry’s parents from him (and Neville’s, come to that)?

Anyone else have any other ideas?


  1. > vol de mort “flight of/from death”
    > volte d’amour “turn from love”?
    > Or vol d’amour “theft of love”

    None of these ever occurred to me! Wow.

    > the final t was meant to be silent,
    > as in French

    Which makes "Voldemor[t]" sound a lot like "Dumbledore"... coincidence? Probably not, knowing Rowling.

  2. Which makes “Voldemor[t]” sound a lot like “Dumbledore” ... coincidence? Probably not, knowing Rowling.

    Yes, I agree. Undoubtedly, the two are meant to echo one another. Just as perhaps Tom and Harry — two of the most common English names — may be so intended.

  3. What a great idea just like it. Thanks your helpful post.