Hogwarts, the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter books, has the following Latin motto: Draco dormiens numquam titillandus.

Most online sources translate this as "Never tickle a sleeping dragon". However, it occurred to me that, since titillandus is a future passive participle, it should not necessarily be translated as the main verb. Additionally, draco and dormiens are both masculine, so I don't think they should be translated as the nominative subject.

I have come up with a couple of potential translations:

A sleeping dragon never to be tickled.

This does not flow very well in English however, so I was thinking that perhaps est was omitted from the motto. On the basis that est should have been included, titillandus est would then be a passive periphrastic. As a result, we could then say

A sleeping dragon is never to be tickled.


A sleeping dragon must never be tickled.

Though "never tickle a sleeping dragon" still preserves the meaning, I believe that the other translations I propose are more accurate with respect to the Latin.

I would like to know if anyone can think of other potential translations that I am missing. Furthermore, can the active equivalents of intended passive phrases as such be considered equally legitimate? Are there any other historical or modern examples of this?

  • 1
    Your translation is exactly what I thought the first time I read the motto, and I can't help thinking the book's is but a free translation.
    – Rafael
    Dec 16, 2016 at 19:16
  • Well spotted. Isn't the supine used for negative commands? Numquam titillatum est +Accusative.
    – Hugh
    Dec 16, 2016 at 19:21
  • 1
    The translation is syntactically free, but many translations are to some extent. As long as it preserves the meaning (which it does) it seems unobjectionable.
    – TKR
    Dec 16, 2016 at 22:20

2 Answers 2


You're right that it's a gerundive of obligation, and thus requires a form of esse. However, it doesn't have to be expressed. Tacitus Annals 1.29 contains two without esse, though they're in indirect statements:

certatum inde sententiis, cum alii opperiendos legatos atque interim comitate permulcendum militem censerent, alii fortioribus remediis agendum: nihil in vulgo modicum; terrere ni paveant, ubi pertimuerint inpune contemni: dum superstitio urgeat, adiciendos ex duce metus sublatis seditionis auctoribus. promptum ad asperiora ingenium Druso erat: vocatos Vibulenum et Percennium interfici iubet. tradunt plerique intra tabernaculum ducis obrutos, alii corpora extra vallum abiecta ostentui.

This commentary agrees with this position.


One could also read the entire motto as a description of the school: maybe Hogwarts is "a sleeping dragon which should not be tickled". I am not familiar enough with the school to tell if this is a sensible interpretation, but it strikes me as a reasonable option. In this reading the motto is not an instruction for students but a description of the school.

I asked a separate question about such uses of gerundive to make sure that this interpretation is indeed grammatical.

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