Harry’s introduction to the artist formerly known as Tom Riddle came from Hagrid, but with most of the wizarding world refusing to discuss the self-styled Lord Voldemort, it was Dumbledore who first named him for us.
‘It all gets so confusing if we keep saying “You- Know-Who”. I have never seen any reason to be frightened of saying Voldemort’s name,’ he told Professor McGonagall at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Later he explained to Harry: ‘Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.’
As feats of defiance go it might seem a small thing, but given that inciting fear was a key Voldemort tactic, Dumbledore’s casual treatment carried a certain kind of resistance. But if Dumbledore’s resistance was, at least initially, subtle, Voldemort’s was definitely not...
Tom Riddle inherited little from his witch mother and even less from the Muggle father he would go on to kill. One exception, of course, was the name given to him. Even from an early age, Riddle took against this. ‘There are a lot of Toms,’ he told Dumbledore, irritably, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The traditional Aramaic meaning of Tom is ‘twin,’ and as Tom Marvolo Riddle was such a singular character perhaps it’s not surprising he disliked his common first name.
Still, when Riddle arrived at Hogwarts it was his mother, Merope Gaunt, who was the focus of most of his disdain. Discovering it was actually Merope who gave him his magical heritage doesn’t seem to have done much to soften Riddle’s attitude towards her, but his response to the revelation that his father was a Muggle was absolute. Dumbledore believed it was this discovery that led him to shed the moniker of Tom Riddle and assume the identity of Lord Voldemort.
Riddle’s dislike of his name shows how he held himself apart, even as a child. It continued at Hogwarts, where he rejected every aspect of his own story – except for the parts that suited him. After all, it was by mixing his wizarding and Muggle names that he created his new moniker: ‘Tom Marvolo Riddle’, becoming ‘I am Lord Voldemort’.
Lord Voldemort was everything Tom Riddle was not. Choosing to style himself as a Lord was a bold move, but from the outset it gave Voldemort an identity that was far from common.
That new identity was also original, based as it was on Riddle’s given names. J.K. Rowling has said that she invented the name Voldemort, and its French origins – ‘vol’ means, variously, ‘flight’ or ‘theft’; ‘de’ means ‘of’ or ‘from’; and ‘mort’ means ‘death’ – give it a sinister backstory entirely in keeping with Voldemort’s image. Whether his name was intended to foreshadow his attempts to fly from death or not, it’s ‘mort’ that’s the crucial bit. With his army of Death Eaters and his disregard for the lives of people who stood in his way, Voldemort was all about death.
Considering how much thought he put into it, Voldemort’s name wasn’t actually used that much. Even 11 years after his apparent defeat, Hagrid struggled to voice it, saying: ‘Gulpin’ gargoyles, Harry, people are still scared.’
He wasn’t the only one. Ron’s reaction to hearing Harry say ‘Voldemort’ shows how widespread the practise of not using it had become – so much so, Harry felt it as a sign of his ignorance.
‘I’m not trying to be brave or anything, saying the name,’ said Harry. ‘I just never knew you shouldn’t…’
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
So Voldemort gained new aliases: He Who Must Not Be Named, You-Know-Who, The Dark Lord (apparently even Voldemort’s followers were scared to say it). It seems Dumbledore’s words to Harry – about fear of a name increasing fear of the thing itself – were true for most of the wizarding world.
Not Dumbledore, though. In Voldemort’s presence, he insisted on calling him Tom Riddle, subtly reminding the Dark Lord of his past. But when talking to others, it was always Voldemort. In doing so, he forced people to face the truth: that Voldemort remained a man of humble origins even if he was also a dangerous, Dark wizard.
Harry never saw the sense in avoiding Voldemort’s name either, but it was only when others used it – like Hermione, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – that it became noticeable just how unusual Dumbledore and Harry were. But, of course, Dumbledore was right: if everybody had said the name freely then Voldemort would never have been able to use it to track his enemies, as with the Taboo in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Using his own name to trap those working against him must have given the former Tom Riddle a twisted satisfaction. And yet, while it did lead to Harry’s capture, the Taboo also showed Voldemort’s motivation had never changed. As a commonly-named child in a Muggle orphanage he’d longed to stand out; as the Dark Lord of the wizarding world he wanted much the same thing.