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

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.) | Source

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 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.

Harry Potter in Latin

Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Latin edition)
Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Latin edition)

Someday, I need to get around to reading Harry Potter in English. This is a fair Latin translation -- at least, I assume it is -- and a fun way to practice Latin. I was stumped by some of the foods and flavors the first time through, however, and kept having to reach for a dictionary. ("Earwax"? That can't be right.)


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.

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Comments 22 comments

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK

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.

rai2722 profile image

rai2722 4 years ago

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

Greekgeek profile image

Greekgeek 4 years ago from California Author

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.

LisaKoski profile image

LisaKoski 4 years ago from WA

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.

Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii

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

nifwlseirff profile image

nifwlseirff 4 years ago from Leipzig, Germany

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

ChrisMyth profile image

ChrisMyth 4 years ago from Scotland

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!

Dumbledore 4 years ago

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

Greekgeek profile image

Greekgeek 4 years ago from California Author

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.

Rumbleroar 4 years ago

Glad to see the allowance of poetic license.

Seven 4 years ago

kedavra = cadaver ? :)

Clive Donegal profile image

Clive Donegal 4 years ago from En Route

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.

pinkhub profile image

pinkhub 4 years ago

Expecto genium sounds much better than expecto patronum.

Chris 4 years ago

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!"

Rafael 4 years ago

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.

Potterian 3 years ago

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).

Greekgeek profile image

Greekgeek 3 years ago from California Author

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.

fridelain 2 years ago

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

Danielle 2 years ago

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.

Emma 2 years ago

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.

David 16 months ago

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.

Ken 7 months ago

Thank you!

I thoroughly enjoyed your humor and information!

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