My question was inspired by the phrase in this question:

draco dormiens numquam titillandus

...where titillo presumably refers to the action of "tickling."

Is this use of titillo attested? Lewis & Short gives that as one of the English definitions, but all of the examples I can find correspond to the figurative English meaning of "tickle," i.e. "titillate."

I cannot find a single classical example where this word is used to describe the literal action, which leads me to doubt whether the above phrase would have provoked a strange reaction in a Roman.

Is there any justification for the use of titillo outside of its figurative sense of "titillate"?


Is there any justification for the use of titillo outside of its figurative sense of "titillate"?

Yes, I think so. See Pliny the Elder, Natural History, book XI, 77:198

in eadem praecipua hilaritatis sedes, quod titillatu maxime intellegitur alarum ad quas subit, non aliubi tenuiore humana cute ideoque scabendi dulcedine ibi proxima.

In it [the diaphragm] also is the chief seat of merriment, a fact that is gathered chiefly from tickling the arm-pits to which it rises, as nowhere else is the human skin thinner, and consequently the pleasure of scratching is closest there.


So, I learned something new about English today. I began to jump on your question from an etymological angle, pointing out the origin of to tickle when, to my surprise, I discovered the original meaning of tickle was physical, at least according to Etymonline.

However, if you look at the development, you'll see a figurative use "tickle" used to translate the Latin "titillare" from the 14th century.

Meaning "to excite agreeably" (late 14c.) is a translation of Latin titillare. Meaning "to poke or touch so as to excite laughter" is from early 15c.; figurative sense of "to excite, amuse" is attested from 1680s. To tickle (one's) fancy is from 1640s.

This is the meaning I thought Rowling meant her Latin to mean, and if I were to see the English today, I would not automatically assume it meant put their fingers to its underbelly, but sort of "excite/arouse," since the consequences are dire even if the dragon is "agreeable."

  • Interesting: so the "titillate" sense of English "tickle" was added afterwards by analogy to Latin titillare? In which case, the answer to my question is that titillare cannot in fact refer to the physical action of "tickling"? As for Rowling, non flocci facio--it just inspired the thought :) – brianpck Dec 20 '16 at 22:13
  • @brianpck There might be confluence. Look at Penelope's recent answer. I'd say that the physical action is the extended meaning, though. – cmw Dec 20 '16 at 22:44

Smith's gives examples, both figurative and physical:

titillo, -avi, -atum I v.a. to tickle, titillate : sensus, Lucr. 2, 429 ; Cic. Fin. I, II 39 ; carnem Tert. Pud. 22 med. : multitudinis levitatem voluptate quasi titillantes Cic. Off. 2, 18, 63 ll Fig. : ne vos titillet Gloria Hor. S. 2, 3, 179 : femina nulla prorsus invidia titillata, Mart. Cap. 2, 42.

titillus, i, m., [titillo] a tickling : Cod. Theod. 8, 5, 2.

[Rowling uses her bits of "Latin" purely for effect — really, I think, hardly intended as more than nonce-words or expressions. I don't feel that we can expect to get much of an insight from it into anything very serious, can we?]

  • Could you specify which of these examples are not figurative? – brianpck Dec 20 '16 at 20:36
  • To be clear: I see that it's divided into two numerals, but the first division seems to exclude uses that I am not interested in. By "literal" I meant "the physical action of tickling." – brianpck Dec 20 '16 at 20:39
  • Not sure I understand your second comment. Otherwise, I think that carnem and med might be clues. And what does Cicero mean by quasi titillantes if not something physical? – Tom Cotton Dec 20 '16 at 20:41
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    Cicero: "as if tickling (?) with pleasure the shallowness of the multitude" Tertullian: "subduing the tickled (?) flesh" Neither fits the bill. – brianpck Dec 20 '16 at 20:49
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    "Physical action of tickling": I really don't know how much further I can clarify. "The mother tickled her child" NOT: "This tickled my fancy." – brianpck Dec 20 '16 at 20:58

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