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The Meaning of "Expecto Patronum": From Hogwarts to Ancient Rome!

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No, Not THAT Kind of Patronus!

A Roman aristocrat. (Actually, it's Titus, emperor and son of the wonderfully down-to-earth emperor Vespasian, but he's dressed as a typical Roman noble in a senatorial toga.)

A Roman aristocrat. (Actually, it's Titus, emperor and son of the wonderfully down-to-earth emperor Vespasian, but he's dressed as a typical Roman noble in a senatorial toga.)

Latin, Language of Wizards

As a former Latin instructor, I'm delighted by the use of Latin at Hogwarts. It's a fun way to expose 21st century lectores (readers) to that ancient tongue. Rowling has apparently forgotten most of her school-Latin, but I've forgotten all my French, so I can sympathize.

Some Harry Potter Latin is perfectly good, as well as accurate, Latin: accio, "I summon," evanesco, "I vanish," cruciatus, "torture," and ridiculus, which means exactly what you think (except I think Rowling spelled it funny). Some Hogwarts spells are ancient Greek or Latin, but the grammar is a bit dodgy: oppugno av[e]s, "I attack the birds," is probably not what Hermione meant to say when she ordered birds to attack Ron, and anapneo, Greek for "I breathe," is not a helpful thing to say when someone else is choking.

A few Hogwarts spells are fake Latin: wingardium leviosa gives itself away with the English word "wing" (Latin doesn't have the letter "w"). A very few spells are not Latin or Greek, and appear to be gibberish, although avada kedavra is probably some alternate form of "abracadabra."

Then there's expecto patronum, meaning "I await a patron." That translation doesn't explain much, does it? What does "patron" really mean?

It appears that Ms. Rowlings looked up the English word "protector" in a Latin-to-English dictionary and picked patronus, the first word listed as a translation. Fortunately, she aced the grammar on that one; -um turns the -us ending into a direct object. Unfortunately, patronus makes me think of The Sopranos.

Dictionaries do not always give you a complete picture: if I tell you levis translates "light," you won't know whether I mean visible light or a lack of weight, would you? Patronus is another one of those words that loses something in translation.

The Real Meaning of Patronus

So, then, what is a patron? Essentially, a patronus in ancient Rome was a rich, powerful man who would defend his clientes (clients) in lawsuits, assist them in business transactions, find them plum jobs, and pay them a small daily allowance in exchange for certain services. The clientes' role was to visit their patron's house each morning, ready to take on whatever errands or assignments the patronus commanded, and to provide an escort for him when he went out into the city.

Patronage was the way young, upwardly mobile Romans made their way up the social ladder, like Percy attaching himself to Cornelius Fudge. For the rich and powerful patron, a crowd of clientes waiting at your door was a symbol of your prestige, like the number of friends or followers in a social network (only rather more significant). Clientes also served as vital security and protection at a time before police escorts, effective locks, or fully-enclosed vehicles. The patronage system also supported the arts. Like ancient Andrew Carnegies, wealthy patrons funded poets and artists, in exchange for an occasional flattering poem or sculpture that preserved their name and fame for eternity.

The patronage system was the secret of Rome's staying power: it assumed political cronyism, bribery, lobbyists, rigged elections and corruption as a fact, and incorporated them into the system. Over the centuries, as the central government of Imperial Rome slowly crumbled, the patronage system endured. I have never seen a historical study on the subject, but I am fairly certain that the patronage system lasted right through the Middle Ages to become the Italian mafia. In the mafia, aristocratic Rome survives to this day.

To expect a patron was to expect your boss to bribe a judge if you got sued, or at least defend you in court as your lawyer and bribe the jury. I don't think ancient Roman patroni would have been a match for Dementors, although they might have tried to hire them as guards for their estates.

What other words might fit Rowling's intended meaning? I feel a certain hubris in offering advice, but I might suggest expecto custodem (guard) or expecto genium (guardian spirit), unless she really intended for Harry Potter to be calling on The Godfather.


Harry on June 06, 2018:

I feel that 'patron' is used because the user of 'expecto patronus' is likely to have committed some kind of a wrong action such that the dementor is attacking him. So the user would request for a 'patron' to save him/her from the dementor and since this saving (of an evil person from their consequence) would be unrightful just like how a patron gets their clients out of trouble through bribing.

Ben Newman on May 19, 2017:

As I understand it, "abracadabra" may be derived from "abara kedavra", which means "I create as I speak" (in Aramaic). "Avada kedavra", on the other hand, would mean "I destroy as I speak". Create/destroy, they're basically opposites.

Ken on March 06, 2016:

Thank you!

I thoroughly enjoyed your humor and information!

David on June 21, 2015:

It is fun to see how fans defend the word patronus. If Rowling would have chose something else they would still defend that something else and think that was the best choice.

Emma on August 09, 2014:

The Patronus would make more sense if you looked at it from a variation of "patr-" in Latin meaning "father". This would also lend itself to clever irony as Harry first thought his Patronus was his father's. You could look at the idea of a "patron" and Patronus as less of mobster/mafia figure and more like that of a Patron Saint. So it is "expecting my father/ divine guardian". This seem to me to fit better in context.

Danielle on July 14, 2014:

Expecto patronum summons a protector, or as Chris says "a powerful, intervening defender", from WITHIN. It is generated by ones own ability to be positive, and ones own determination to defeat fear. So it is really about confidence, independence, and self preservation. I think the words used are perfectly fitting.

fridelain on January 07, 2014:

The Dementors seem to fear a Patronus like most sane people would fear getting in the bad side of the Mafia...

Ellen (author) from California on February 27, 2013:

That is indeed a good point. I'm not sure it entirely obviates the "patron" meaning, but it certainly helps explain why she chose it.

Potterian on February 26, 2013:

But "Patronus" also suggests a father figure. As many of Rowling's names, it has a double meaning. In Prisoner, Harry is literally waiting for his own father to be a protector (i.e. to fight off the dementors at the lake).

Rafael on September 12, 2012:

I don't get this woman, I'll try to be as polite as possible, but I can recall Rowling saying that she was playing with the Latin words and making them her own creation. The Harry Potter world is unique, I don't see why J.K. Rowling should have used any "proper" Latin when she is trying to make this as unique as possible. I disagree, Expecto Genium doesn't sound at all any better than Expecto Patronum. I stick with the original version.

Chris on September 11, 2012:

Actually, I like "patronum" best. I think the word its based on works perfectly well, and the sonority is the best of the options, IMO. In a general sense, it sounds like a patronus is a powerful, intervening defender, which is a a great description of Rowling's "patronum".

Interesting to hear Rowling's explanation of avada kedavra. I'd always thought it was a brilliantly macabre mixture of abracadabra with "cadaver" -- i.e. "Become a corpse!" or "I make you a corpse!"

pinkhub on August 25, 2012:

Expecto genium sounds much better than expecto patronum.

Clive Donegal from En Route on May 14, 2012:

I admire Rowlings' use of language to excite imagination, and I thoroughly enjoyed your essay on the terms that she has borrowed and wrought to meet her books needs.

Seven on May 08, 2012:

kedavra = cadaver ? :)

Rumbleroar on May 02, 2012:

Glad to see the allowance of poetic license.

Ellen (author) from California on April 22, 2012:

Thank you! I wrote this article first and need to add the research to it that I did while preparing the Latin spells article.

Although I didn't say avada kedavra was gibberish! I said *some* spells are gibberish (wingardium leviosa, e.g.: the clue is the Latin ending tacked onto English "wing"). I'm sorry if that was unclear.

JK Rowling herself says that avada kedavra was an early, Aramaic form of abracadabra, which makes sense, although I have yet to find positive proof of this. She claims it means "let the thing be destroyed," which is probably not true, although that's what Wikipedia says right now (probably since Harry Potter fans keep editing the Wikipedia to fit what they think is right)!

See the note on the Wikipedia Article discussion where a native Arabic speaker says that avada kedavra does NOT mean "let the thing be destroyed" in Arabic:

I'd therefore like verification from an Arabic scholar that it's really an Arabic phrase, before I put down an Arabic derivation. (Our first written Arabic come from 328 AD, although earlier proto-Arabic languages predate it, but I don't think we have any surviving magical texts in those; the first Aramaic appears in the tenth century BC).

Many scholars have tried to figure out the derivation of old Greek abracadabra, which first appears in written Greek in the second century A.D. I have found no attestation of avada k'davra, avra k'davra, or avada kadavra predating that text, only scholars trying to figure out where the word comes from by GUESSING that it's Aramaic.

The various Aramaic guesses are listed here:

Most of them come out to some variant of "creation" and "word, speech." I think there's little debate about the second part referring to the power of speech; the hard part is figuring out what that first word is.

I'll continue keeping an eye out for scholarship on this question. I remember running into the edge of the debate before.

Dumbledore on April 22, 2012:

Avada kedavra is Arabic for "disappear like this word". It is not gibberish nor it is some alternate form of Abracadabra.

ChrisMyth from Scotland on April 01, 2012:

This Hub is so brilliant I just had to read it several times over! It combines many of my favorite things, so thank you. Voted up!

Kymberly Fergusson from Germany on February 14, 2012:

Fantastic, informative and funny! I have never studied Latin, but I have heard that it is incredibly useful for learning many languages.

Natasha from Hawaii on January 16, 2012:

Really cool stuff. Thanks! I've always loved looking up names from Harry Potter to see what they mean as words.

Lisa from WA on November 14, 2011:

This is very interesting and informative. I always wondered which of Rowling's spells were actually Latin and what they really meant outside her wizarding world.

Ellen (author) from California on November 12, 2011:

Thank you! Oh, Judi Bee (lovely poppy, by the way, and an excellent idea), I should avail myself of that resource. I's been about ten years since I last used Latin, either to teach or to read for anything but pleasure, and I'm appalled to say that it's beginning to slip.

rai2722 on November 12, 2011:

very funny ending! I enjoy reading it so much. Vote up!

Judi Brown from UK on November 12, 2011:

At school Latin was my favourite subject, along with history. The syllabus we studied at school is now online - Cambridge Latin - and is a great introduction for those interested.