Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Tarot's Enchanted Snowman

Click to enlarge.

(In honor of Gordon Meyer, whose magic spell for bringing a snowman to life appears in Magic Words: A Dictionary.)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


"We wait and wait for some formula, some magic word, some initiation to do for us what we must do for ourselves. There is a magic word—earnestness. The Buddha tells us that earnestness is the path of life and heedlessness is the path of death. Be earnest and nothing will resist you, but be earnest for great ends. Why should we speak of the lesser uses of the imagination. The man of vital imagination will be the creator and producer in any line that he undertakes."
—Swami Paramananda, Vedanta Monthly: Message of the East (1922)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Now You See It, Now You Don't

"Perhaps it was just the basic mystery of life . . . Now you see it—now you don't."
—William Burroughs, Cities of the Red Night (1981)

Saturday, December 27, 2008


The Land of Nimbi blog shares the magic word ramiferous, which means "bearing branches." Blogger Christopher Williams notes that "The magic and taboo that surrounds sacred boughs and branches is manifold and longstanding. The joyful giving of a branch of May and the festive hanging of the mistletoe are contemporary vestiges of quite ancient Goddess worship. Beware those bearing splendid branches, for they are most likely not of this world, and thus have the means to bewitch one and to open portals from this world to theirs." Williams cites a beautiful passage from Old Irish mythology, spoken by a strange woman to the hero Bran after he has taken up such a branch.

Friday, December 26, 2008


During the middle ages, sorcerers and alchemists sought God’s true name, imagining it to be the most potent magic word. Literally meaning “the four letters” in Greek, the word Tetragrammaton is comprised of four Hebrew letters (Yod, He, Waw, and He), spelling the unpronounceable name of the Hebrew God.

Thursday, December 25, 2008


"Christmas! that is the magic word I conjure with."
—David Herbert Lawrence, Lawrence in Love: Letters to Louie Burrows, 1968

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


“Noel! Noel! Noel! This magic word resounds on all sides. . . . Of the thousands of canticles which are heard on this famous eve, nine-nine in a hundred begin and end with this word, which is, one may say, their Alpha and Omega, their crown and footstool.”
The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1862)

Monday, December 22, 2008


"Paradise, that magic word, can touch mysterious chords within us."
—Rev. Henry Woodward, "The Character of God: A Sermon," The Church of England Magazine, 1846

- - -

In other news, the Weiser Books outpost at Twitter has been highlighting tidbits from our Magic Words: A Dictionary. For example:
"Foken Falk ... folkloric magic words for transformation into a bird." Tweet!
"Zauberwort ... a German word meaning 'magic formula.'" And I thought a Zauberwort was a sausage!!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Magic Words and Symbolist Poetry

Aleksandr Blok likens the folk sorcerers of Russia to poets of the Symbolist movement. He explains that both types of wordsmiths "know the word, the essence of things, and know how to turn these things to harm or to good; therefore an inaccessible line separates them from the ordinary people." Like the language of Symbolist poetry, folk magic lingo seeks "to destroy that old self-satisfied, reasonable mode of daily life," to crumble the fossils of yesteryear. "Blok asserted that the magic word can carry those who believe in it beyond the limits of ordinary reality, to other unknown realities." —Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal, The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture, (1997)

Saturday, December 20, 2008


This is the word that Donnie Osmond spoke in The Donnie and Marie Show [late 1970] to transform into Captain Purple. The word is purple spelt backwards.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The word most electric is an unexpected verb

Roy H. Williams suggests that verbs are magic words because they "kick open the door to Broca's area of the brain, that portal to conscious awareness." In other words, verbs spark off mental activity. Williams says that the Broca's area of the brain is put to sleep by predictability. Unexpected verbs, however, are guaranteed to intrigue. Williams cites an episode of The Simpsons:
When Lisa'a schoolteacher hears the town motto, "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man," she mentions she'd never heard the word embiggens before moving to Springfield. Another teacher replies, "I don't know why; it's a perfectly cromulent word." Later in the episode, while talking about Homer's audition for the role of town crier, Principal Skinner states, "He's embiggened that role with his cromulent performance."
Williams calls making up one's own attention-getting words "Suessing." He offers several examples of Seussing:
Use a noun as a verb: "Just Harley-Davidson your way to the head of the line."

Use a verb as noun: "If you can't deliver dazzle, I'll settle for twinkle."

Use a modifier as a verb: "He's planning to slippery his way through the press conference."

Use a verb as a modifier: "It's a kicking shade of pink."

Use a modifier as a noun: "I'm on the road to lethargic."

Use a noun as a modifier: "Now don't get all Brokeback Mountain on me."
See the full article here.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tamaghis, Ba'dan, Yass-Waddah, Waghdas, Naufana, Ghadis

Here's a mysterious spell suggested by William Burroughs:

Tamaghis, Ba'dan, Yass-Waddah, Waghdas, Naufana, Ghadis

Repeating the words as one falls asleep is said to reveal the answer to any question in a dream.

Burroughs explains that the words are names of cities that existed one hundred thousand years ago in an area corresponding to the Gobi Desert. Each city has a slightly different character. Tamaghis is city of "contending partisans" where "everything is as true as you think it is and everything you can get away with is permitted." Ba'dan is a city of commerce where "everything is true and everything is permitted." Yass-Waddah is a "female stronghold" where "everything is true and nothing is permitted except to the permitters." Waghdas is a university city where "complete permission derives from complete understanding." Naufana and Ghadis are both "cities of illusion where nothing is true and therefore everything is permitted." Burroughs notes that "The traveler must start in Tamaghis and make his way through the other cities in the order named. This pilgrimage may take many lifetimes" (Cities of the Red Night, 1981).

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


"'Baghdad is a magic word, as the place itself was magic in the days of long ago.' Whatever its dilapidated state, 'memory and imagination, too, are faithful genii easily summoned' and would conjure 'from the pages of the Nights the most gorgeous palaces, the most impregnable castles, and the most beautiful gardens ... like a dream.'"
—Priya Satia, Spices in Arabia, 2008

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


“Egypt! What wondrous pictures are conjured up by that magic word! Scenes of white-robed priests moving in solemn procession through columned aisles to the sound of stately music; . . . of royal pageants wherein King and Queen, bedecked in silks and cloth of gold, embroidered with a mine of gems, pass through the crowded lines of their acclaiming subjects; scenes of light and life and colour, which cannot fail to rouse our admiration, even our awe: such are some of the pictures that rise before us at the sound of the mystic name.” —F. H. Brooksbank, Legends of Ancient Egypt (1914)

Monday, December 15, 2008

May It Come

"May it come, the magic word, sound, image which will discover for you this world within which you will be invulnerable! May it come quickly!"
—Henri Michaux, The Major Ordeals of the Mind, and the Countless Minor Ones, 1974

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Decree of Destiny

"I am growing superstitious; I seem to feel I am in the cold, dank grotto of a sibyl I cannot see, I seem to feel chills and be awaiting in some magic word the decree of my destiny. Does fate exist, then; is the nightmare real, does the witch exist, and magic and the arcane, the inexorable silence of the temple and the word that kills without reason? Does the invisible sword of destiny exist, hovering over one's head, unjustly, unreasonably, prompting the cynic's sneer, and the curse against life, against providence, against God?"
—Pablo Mantegazza, One Day in Madeira, 1868

Friday, December 12, 2008


"The mere uttering of the magic word 'ada' preserves from bad luck. Good luck is sure if you say it every morning and every evening, turning towards the North and South." —M.C. Poinsot, Complete Book of the Occult and Fortune Telling, 1945

Perhaps related is the magical phrase Ada Ada Io Ada Dia, spoken by Welsh Romany Gypsies as they tell fortunes with dice. “The phrase sounds rather like ‘Oh dear, oh dear, I owe, oh dear, dear.’” “Exactly what it means is now lost in the mist of time, but it is a traditional divination rune or formula of words of power, probably Celtic in origin" (D. Valiente, “Stone Divination,” 2005).

Thursday, December 11, 2008


"Gold is a magic word which conjures a kaleidoscope of images from the myths and legends of every age and culture." —Jenifer Marx, The Magic of Gold, 1978

“Their great magician is Gold,” wrote Richard Henry Savage. “In power, in pleasing witchery of potent influence; insidious flattery of pleasure; in remorseless persecution of the penniless, all wonders are its work. Ariel, Mephisto, Moloch, thou, Gold! King Gold! and thy brother, Silver!” (The Little Lady of Lagunitas,1892).

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


"Arizona! A magic word. Arizona! What visions of grandeur those seven letters conjure. Arizona! A symphony in mad, extravagant colors, shaded with the soft light of the desert in the evening, the purple mountains at twilight, the mauve sky of a rising sun." —Raymond Carlson, Arizona's Scenic Seasons, 1984

The origin of the word Arizona is uncertain. It recalls the Aztec arizuma, "silver bearing," and the O'odham Indian word aleh-zone, "little spring."

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Strong distilled liquors are called spirits, so it's little wonder that alcohol is a magic word. "What potentialities of pleasure in the springtime of life lie in the magic word [alcohol], and, alas, how often in its dawn what regrets and shadows are conjured up!" (N. E. Vorke-Davies, "Wine in Its Relation to Health," The Gentleman's Magazine, 1897).

Monday, December 8, 2008


Ubiquitous in the book of Psalms, Selah is that magical moment before a miracle occurs. It’s that breathless instant of anticipation, of suspended disbelief. Selah is the pause in music, the stillness in the dance, the calligraphic circled space—emptiness enhanced. The word appears on Kabalistic talismans.


Elsewhere, Karen Koenig discusses how to use magic words to foster healthy eating habits.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Magic Words review

Here's an excerpt from Janet Boyer's review of Magic Words: A Dictionary:
The first 48-pages of Magic Words are utterly fascinating, with Conley an engaging tour guide through literary, philosophical, cultural and spiritual landscapes—realms dotted with landmarks that pay homage to the power of magical utterances (and, sometimes, even to silence and mysterious glyphs).

Not only does Conley offer examples of poetic incantations and the mysterious power of words in his introduction, but he also provides fascinating insight into the vocabulary of ritual (and why we get the giggles during solemn occasions!), the four archetypes of the Magician, and our ability to imbue “ordinary” moments with the magic of both cadence and connation.

The rest of Magic Words is dedicated to, well, magic words!

With word origins, facts, variations, meanings, mystique and appearances in literature, this A to Z guide offers a mind-boggling array of information to be mined by would-be magicians, entertainers, writers and artists. . . .

Magic Words is, indeed, a meticulously researched, heavily footnoted, and absorbing read, especially for lovers of trivia and words. Performers seeking to spruce up their magic routine would do well to consult this book, as would all manner of artists who seek to infuse their work with meaning, mystery, flair or sacredness.
See the full review here. Janet is author of The Back in Time Tarot Book.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Good, Just, Beautiful

Good, just, and beautiful are magic words but are not powerful in terms of warding off conflict:
What is good for me is not necessarily good for you. Indeed, if my good and your good involve the possession of an identical object—a person we both love, an honor we both covet—the two goods cannot be identical. This is the very structure of mimetic rivalry. We will not be able to avert conflict merely by pronouncing some magic word ("good," "just," or "beautiful") as we might the name of a god in a rite.
—Eric Lawrence Gans, Signs of Paradox, 1997

Friday, December 5, 2008

Ooo Eee Ooo-Ah-Ah Ting Tang Walla-Walla Bing-Bang

This phrase is a love spell chanted in the song “Witch Doctor” by David Seville (1958). “It is a song of unrequited love cured by the magic incantations of the witch doctor” (Bob McCann, “The Declension Song,” 2003). Diana Winn Levine suggests that ting tang are the magic words and walla walla bing bang mean the magic is over (“Funny 50s and Silly 60s Activity Worksheet,” 2005).

Thursday, December 4, 2008


There was the sudden zip and zing of magic.
—Terry Pratchett, The Light Fantastic (2000)
Zing is a little bolt of flowing energy, a “tiny shock.”* It whizzes past and bounces up, glittering all the way. Zing is something we add, to get things energized and moving. Zing is also associated with release, as in the saying, “Zing went the strings of my heart.”

* Diana G. Gallagher, Showdown at the Mall (1997)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Saritap Pernisox Ottarim

These antiquated Egyptian magic words are for opening locks. They are believed to grant the speaker the ability to “open all locks at a touch, whatever precautions have been taken to secure them.”

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Alithe Zamadon

These are ancient words of power whose very echoes make the syllables more distinct. They are “not the speech of human beings” but rather, “the language of the demiurges who could adjust the powers on which the cosmos turned" (David Drake, Master of the Cauldron, 2004).

Monday, December 1, 2008

Baby's Magic Incantations

Childhood words are interesting to contemplate. “The first ‘words’ of a baby are not words at all,” suggests professor Selma H. Fraiberg, “but magic incantations, sounds uttered for pleasure and employed indiscriminately to bring about a desired event.” A one-year-old baby will discover that “the syllable ‘mama,’ repeated several times if necessary, will magically cause the appearance of the invaluable woman who ministers to all needs and guards him against all evil. He doesn’t know just how this happens, but he attributes this to his own magic powers” (The Magic Years, 1996). This is why Fraiberg contends that “language originates in magic.” In addition to embodying magical expectations, a baby’s incantations are characterized by surprise and excitement, two crucial qualities for magic words.

As David Abram explains, “We do not, as children, first enter into language by consciously studying the formalities of syntax and grammar or by memorizing the dictionary definitions of words, but rather by actively making sounds—by crying in pain and laughing in joy, by squealing and babbling and playfully mimicking the surrounding soundscape, gradually entering through such mimicry into the specific melodies of the local language, our resonant bodies slowly coming to echo the inflections and accents common to our locale and community. We thus learn our native language not mentally but bodily. We appropriate new words and phrases first through their expressive tonality and texture, through the way they feel in the mouth or roll off the tongue, and it is this direct, felt significance—the taste of a word or phrase, the way it influences or modulates the body—that provides the fertile, polyvalent source for all the more refined and rarefied meanings which that term may come to have for us” (The Spell of the Sensuous, 1996).

Friday, November 28, 2008


This Sumerian phrase, meaning “heavenly life,” was uttered by Incan priests in their incantations to invoke the divine.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


Of Greek origin, “The magic term was homoousios, a word that may be translated not only as ‘of the same substance’ but also as ‘of the same existence,’ ‘essence,’ ‘reality,’ ‘being,’ ‘form,’ ‘definition,’ or even ‘truth.’” —Gunnar Olsson, Abysmal (2007)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


"Curiosities—a word of magic meaning."
The London Quarterly Review, April 1865

Image: a Cabinet of Curiosities from 1599.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Magic Words to Obtain Confessions

Magic words of rationalization, projection, and minimization help interrogators obtain admissions of guilt. The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin explains:
Investigators often ask, "Do any magic words exist for obtaining confessions?" The answer is an unequivocal yes. Certain words and phrases, such as "accidents happen...," "anyone in this situation could have...," "everybody makes mistakes...," can give offenders a dignified way to admit their involvement in a crime and provide investigators with a proven approach to obtaining confessions. After identifying the appropriate words to use to obtain confessions, any investigator can become adept in using the magic words of interrogation.
See the full article here.

Monday, November 24, 2008

What Magic Word is Best For You?

The best magic word for you depends upon what kind of magician you are: Trickster, Sorcerer, Oracle, and Sage. Jeff McBride explains these archetypes in the Mystery School book. A quick way to determine your type is to think about how you'd organize a friend's birthday party:

A trickster type is mischievous and would be inclined to throw a surprise party or a hire a novelty singing telegram. "I can't believe you did this" would be a typical reaction. The trickster's magic words are likely to be funny-sounding tongue-twisters or irreverent wordplays.

A sorcerer type likes to make huge impressions with grand gestures, such as arranging a lavish, elegant dinner party. "I'm speechless" would be a typical reaction. The sorcerer's magic words are likely to be weighty and mysterious syllables from Egyptian and European wizards of old.

An oracle type would take a psychological approach and snoop out the ultimate gift as if through mind-reading. "How on earth did you know I wanted this?" would be a typical reaction. An oracle's magic words would be friendly, familiar words like "vacation" that cause us to spirit off to a fantasy world.

A sage type would take a philosophical approach and act as a wise one or guide to give a friend symbolic wings; the birthday would be an ordinary day made extraordinary by awakening the inner child to see with eyes of wonder. "Only you could have made today so special" would be a typical reaction. The sage's magic words are likely to be mystic chants of Judaism's Kabbalists, Islam's Sufis, Christianity's Gnostics, Buddhism's Lamas, and Hinduism's Gurus.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Language is Magic Stuff

"Language is magic stuff that needs to be consciously pushed into shape and form to ensure that it works exactly the way you want it to work." —Wilfried Hou Je Bek, "Graffiti and the Obelisk"

Friday, November 21, 2008


“One magic word can increase a salary offer by thousands of dollars, according to one salary-negotiation expert. That word is ‘Hmmm,’ preceded by a thoughtful, pregnant pause, followed by a question, says Jack Chapman, author of Negotiating Your Salary: How to Make $1,000 a Minute (Ten Speed Press). Here’s his formula: ‘When you hear the figure or the range, repeat the figure on the top of the range and then be quiet. Change “OK” to “Hmmm . . . is that the best you can do?”’" —Sharon McDonnell, You’re Hired! (1999)

Thursday, November 20, 2008


"Now, pick a magic word."
"Nope, umm's not good enough."
—Nora Roberts, Honest Illusions, 1993

I bellowed the magic words, “Uuuhhh, Uuuhhh.”
—Raymond W. Baker, Capitalism’s Achilles Heel, 2005
Language has the power to reawaken vestiges of humankind’s earliest communication—our ancient ancestors’ savage cries of anger or love. All such cries were commands, “originally bound up with the act” and indeed inseparable to the primitive mind. When intoned without mockery, the primitive syllables of ooga-booga conjure the “primal oohs and ahs from cave men and women . . . in those early human settlements,” or perhaps the mysterious, exotic powers of tribal elders (Helen Godgson and Patti Britton, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Sensual Massage, 2003).

Ooga-Booga has a variety of meanings, including:

• God; higher power
“Great Ooga-Booga, can’t you hear me talkin’ to ya?” —The Temptations, quoted in Miles to Go by Chris Murphy (2002)
“[P]eople felt when they died their ‘spirit’ went to the great ooga-booga in the sky . . .” — (2003)
• Jungle native chant
—James Howard Kunstler, Geography Of Nowhere (1994)
• Mumbo-jumbo
“The stuff where you play the records backwards and it’s got some sort of ooga-booga about the Devil on it.” —Joe R. Lansdale, The Drive-In (1988)
• Nonsense
—Orson Scott Card, The Memory of Earth (1992)
• Occult; “otherworldly phenomena”
—Bernie Brillstein, Where Did I Go Right? (1999)
• Password
“After two rings, a voice spoke from the tiny handset. ‘Ooga-booga?’ ‘Boola-boola,’ Tollhouse responded. ‘Hubba-hubba!’ came the gratified reply.” —Harry Beard, The Dick Cheney Code: A Parody (2004)
• Primitivism
—Rick Steves, Rick Steves’ London 2004 (2003)
• Ritual
—Alexandra Robbins, Secrets of the Tomb (2003)
• Spirituality
“[There is] a spiritual component—what I sometimes laughingly refer to as ooga-booga moments.” —Ronna Lichtenberg, Pitch Like a Girl (2005)
• Spooky
“In desperation, soaps have started adding a lot of ooga-booga ghost storylines with voodoo, witchcraft, and, in the case of one, a Chucky-style creepy doll that comes to life.” —Celia Rivenbark, We’re Just Like You, Only Prettier (2004)
• Voodoo
“There were zombies in the building. Not ooga-booga magic-type zombies, but near enough.” —Richard Fawkes, Nature of the Beast (2004)
• Witchdoctor, head honcho
“Seems the Lord High Ooga-Booga wants to see you face-to-face ’fore he seals the deal.” —Tom Clancy, Hidden Agendas (1999)
“[H]e was like a guru, or a witch doctor, or some kind of far-out ooga-booga man . . .” —Frank E. Peretti, This Present Darkness (1986)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Khabs Am Pekht

This mystic Egyptian phrase translates as ‘the attainment of the star.’ According to Fellowship of Isis documents, initiates of the Elusian Mysteries were dismissed with the corrupted pronunciation Konx Ompax.

As the poet Gary Barwin has suggested,
the stars are asterisks
footnoted by things here on earth

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Word to Transcend Time

"Let us find a magic word, an 'open sesame' to remembrance, which shall act like a celestial incantation, wafting us back, to relive this happy hour."
—Leon M. Lion, The Surprise of My Life, 1948

Monday, November 17, 2008

Kha-khe, Khi-khi

These magic words, of Sioux origin, are to be said by a medicine man with the croaking voice of a buzzard. They were recorded by Native American storyteller Zitkala-Sa (1876-1938).

Sunday, November 16, 2008

This Magic Moment

"This Magic Moment" is a slick assembly of magicianly clips from filmdom.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Spells Without Words

A Book Without Words: A Fable of Medieval Magic involves a tome of spells that appears to consist of blank pages. Having compiled our own atlas of blank maps, we find the concept enchanting!

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Process is the Objective

"I need to go and get a magic word. I'll be right back."
—Allan Kuester, A Holiday Dream, 1999

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Mutatis Mutandis

This Latin phrase of transformation indicates “the necessary changes having been made.”


In honor of a supportive film noir filmmaker, we've been digging around for a good quotation in which noir is used as a magic word. We're still looking, but there is this:
[Surrealist writer Julien] Gracq has stressed the predilection for the word 'noir,' which because of its subtle suggestion of sacrilege exercises a demonic fascination for [founder of surrealism André] Breton.
—Clifford Browder, André Breton, 1967.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Is There a Magic Word?

"I don't know what to do! Is there a magic word I should say?"
"I don't know, is there a magic word you should say?" said the toad, and turned over.
—Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men (2006)


Don't miss this clip of our eccentric short talk entitled "Jeff McBride and His Precursors," in which we trace one stage magician's effect on art backwards through time.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


We must be in the center of the magic focus.
—Piers Anthony, Geis of the Gargoyle (1995)

Your focus invokes The Magician.
—Richard Gordon, The Intuitive Tarot (1994)
The magic word focus is a cornerstone, a linchpin, bringing attention to the heart of the matter. Focus is a magic word of powerful concentration. It’s the point of convergence.

Monday, November 10, 2008


“The old man half-recalls his wandering thoughts. He mutters: ‘Mother, mother.’ It is many years since he has spoken that word, and she who bore the name has long slept beneath the sod. Ad yet it is a magic word, for it speaks of the tenderest, dearest love. A tear runs down his furrowed cheek—a tear from a fountain long since dry. But that one word, ‘Mother,’ makes the old man a child again.” —Anonymous, “Day-Dreams,” The Knickerbocker (May 1857)


By the way, here's a collection of some of our magic-related guest blogs.

"Octarine," the imaginary color of magic.

A profile of Loïe Fuller, illusionist of light and color

The colors of ancient Egypt

Beguiled by a mystery

Friday, November 7, 2008

Open Sesame

Vocal commands such as “open sesame” seem to hark back to ancient sonic technologies. Some researchers are convinced, for example, that sound vibrations were manipulated to levitate heavy stones during the building of the Great Pyramid. Umberto Eco suggests: “It is known that the Chaldean priests operated sacred machines by sounds alone, and the priests of Karnak and Thebes could open the doors of a temple with only their voice—and what else could be the origin, if you think about it, of the legend of Open Sesame?” (Foucault’s Pendulum, 1988).

Thursday, November 6, 2008


This venerable word may not be powerful enough to move mountains, but it is said that stones heed its call. Consider this literary example: “Kerry concentrated, gesturing toward the ground, and said, ‘Ashashalika,’ one of the old words of magic. Rocks shifted, shaking off their dusting of snow. Big ones rolled quickly to the points Kerry had visualized, and smaller ones filled in the spaces between” (Jeff Mariotte, Winter, 2005).

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Pon Chiki Non Non

Originating in India, this phrase is used to vanish something into thin air.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Eenie Meenie Minie Moe

The incantation Eenie meenie minie moe puts a matter at hand into the hands of fate. The words have a spiritual, poetic quality. Poet Rodger Kamenetz recalls passing Allen Ginsberg “in the audience during a teaching by the Dalai Lama in New York. While others were dutifully chanting Tibetan syllables, Ginsberg was intoning ‘eenie meenie miney mo.’”[1] The phrase is closely associated with the action of counting and is “based on a counting system that predates the Roman occupation of Britain, that may even be pre-Celtic. If so, it is a rare surviving link with the very distant past. It not only gives us a fragmentary image of how children were being amused at the time Stonehenge was built, but tells us something about how their elders counted and thought and ordered their speech."[2]

[1] The Jew in the Lotus (1994)
[2] Bill Bryson, Made in America (1994)

Monday, November 3, 2008

Magic Archetypes

We're delighted to announce that imagery we curated for the book Magic Archetypes: The Art Behind the Science of Conjuring appears (in animated form) in the new Eugene Burger documentary A Magical Vision by filmmaker Michael Caplan. See a preview of the film on YouTube.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Magic Words review

Library Journal reviewed our Magic Words: A Dictionary in the Oct. 15 issue:
Despite its undeniable appeal to New Age audiences, Conley's (One-Letter Words) book of more than 700 words and phrases is just as relevant to the linguist and language enthusiast as it is to Occult followers. A vividly written introduction includes contemplations on ritual and pronunciation, and each multi-paragraph entry explains meanings, origins, and literary references. Like an academic work, the text is liberally footnoted, citing pop culture, literary, or Internet uses of the word or phrase—although it occasionally omits significant references. Recommended for pop culture, New Age, and language libraries.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Dust of Bones

Don't miss our interview over at The Tarot Channel, all about Magic Words: A Dictionary.


We were surprised to discover the following magic spell in a modern book of science magic tricks:

"Dust of bones and witch's attire, I command you to draw some fire."

The spell is recommended for setting a sugar cube alight with "genuine witch's dust ... made from the scraping from the bottom of her kettle after she made her brew ... The witches use it to draw fire—lightning—from the sky to start their fires." (Nathan Shalit, Science Magic Tricks, 1998).

This spell harks back to an era when science and the occult overlapped. As Henry Adams noted in his autobiography, "Science has proved that forces, sensible and occult, physical and metaphysical, simple and complex, surround, traverse, vibrate, rotate, repel, attract, without stop; that man's senses are conscious of few, and only in a partial degree; but that, from the beginning of organic existence his consciousness has been induced, expanded, trained in the lines of sensitiveness; and that the rise of his faculties from a lower power to a higher, or from a narrower to a wider field, may be due to the function of assimilating and storing outside force or forces. There is nothing unscientific in the idea that, beyond the lines of force felt by the senses, the universe may be—as it has always been—either a supersensuous chaos or a divine unity, which irresistibly attracts, and is either life or death to penetrate. Thus far, religion, philosophy, and science seem to go hand in hand."

Thursday, October 30, 2008


This musical word has an exotic ring to it, with a sizzling zap in the middle and a plosive ta to mark the impact at the end. The word has been traced back to Europe in the 1300s, in talismanic parchments containing exotic-sounding divine names and guaranteeing longevity.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


In the mystical Shingon sect of Buddhism, the name Shingon is known as the “True Word” or “Magic Word.” Shingon is the Japanese translation of the Sanskrit word mantra.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Noctar Raiban

These antiquated magic words for mind reading are from an Egyptian book of magical talismans. They were believed to compel even “the most discreet man ... to unveil his utterly secret thoughts.”

Monday, October 27, 2008

Darkness, Light, Earth, Air, Sun, Truth

The magical incantation "Darkness, Light, Earth, Air, Sun, Truth," explained by the Pythagorean Androcydes, was discovered in the temple of Artemis in Ephesus.* It was used for banishing disease.

*Hugo Magnus, Superstition in Medicine (1905)

Friday, October 24, 2008


It was the voice of that magic harp at the bottom of the sea, . . . the voice of hidden music that had cried ‘Resurgam’ through the wood.
—Richard Le Gallienne, The Worshipper of the Image (1900).
A breath of new life, "the magic Latin word resurgam"* means “I shall rise again” or "I shall return."

*Herbert David Croly, The New Republic, 1941

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Ridas Talimol

Used by magicians to control fire or water, ridas talimol is an antiquated magic phrase for “commanding the elements,” from an Egyptian book of magical talismans.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Mekka-lekka-hi, Mekka-hiney-ho

This magic phrase was popularized by the children’s television series Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (1986): “One of Pee-wee’s visiting pals to pop into the Playhouse was in the form of a genie—a disembodied, turban-topped talking head named Jambi. Always a jokester, Jambi swiveled his head and worked his magic much to Pee-wee’s rapture; he granted wishes if Pee-wee chanted along with him (‘mecca-lecka-hi, mecca-hiney-ho’)” (Stephen Cox, Dreaming of Jeannie, 2000).

Here are some examples of Mekka-lekka-hi, Mekka-hiney-ho in literature:
“It might as well have been Abracadabra, hocus pocus, or meka-leka-hi, meka-hiney-ho. It was a magical incantation in the language of the gods.” —Carlos Eire, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy (2003)

“A massive frozen glass door stood in my way, which I opened with ease, by repeating the chant ‘Mecca lecka hai, mecca heiney ho,’ and using the handle.” — (2004)

“We’d let those kids know that they’re loved and valuable, and deserving of healing. ‘Mekka Lekka Hi, Mekka Lekka Hiney Ho. Fear be gone when we say ‘go.’” —Naomi Judd, Naomi’s Breakthrough Guide (2004)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


As the building blocks of language, the letters of the alphabet are our most concise magic words. Here's one of our favorite tributes to the A B C's as "open sesames" to magical worlds:

Abashed I stand, yet eager, like Aladdin awed before
The cavern of enchantment, with darksome, magic door;
For 'mid the cloistered shadows there wait on every side
The portals of the mystic realms my word can open wide.

What need of sprite or genie? What use of lamp or ring?
I have the word that opens, the wonder-charm I bring;
I am my own magician, when, with my wand in hand,
I come a seeking pilgrim into the bookman's land.

Why pause in doubtful longing? I need but choose the gate—
I need but speak the magic word for which the hinges wait;
The door will swing obedient and open me the way
To Egypt or to Arden, to Chile or Cathay.

O covers of a wealth of books, O wizard hingèd doors,
What treasures do you lock from me, what wonder-realm is yours?
Nay, mine, all mine to conjure with, the simple A B C—
The charm I learned, a little child, beside my mother's knee.

—Abbie Farwell Brown, St. Nicholas, 1900

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Cadence of Nostalgia

In the introduction to Magic Words: A Dictionary, we note the powerfully evocative lyrics of Hoagy Carmichael—musical, magical words that conjure the listener's yearning for simpler times. The playwright Jonathan Caws-Elwitt whimsically combined those bits of nostalgia into a sentence of his own:
Down by the old mill, moonlight spills like buttermilk on a Wabash veranda, while possums feast on rhubarb 'neath the sycamores, as if tucking into watermelons.

P.S. Oleander.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Allow Silence

Speak a magic word from your heart. And if, when the magic moment arrives, no sound escapes your lips, then let silence be louder than words. “The delight that we unveil always seems to come down to this: I have a feeling in my heart and now, without any words—abracadabra: You have that feeling in your heart.”* That’s what magic is—a kind of communion, an imparting of a transcendent experience from one who is initiated to those who assemble around him. And some of these shared, transcendent experiences are just too magical for words.

*George Alistair Sanger, quoted in The Art of Digital Music: 56 Visionary Artists and Insiders Reveal Their Creative Secrets by David Battino (2005)

Thursday, October 16, 2008


Well, I never! Who would have thought such a common word could work magic?
—Peggy Christian, The Bookstore Mouse (2002)
Professional magician Kenton Knepper (The Mystic of Magic) notes, “I feel that every word is magical, for by defining, we create. By labeling anything, we limit it. When we limit something, it becomes a seeming reality. All that is in physical form is a compression, and words do compress a wide range of possibilities of experience into a single thing. Each word has a compression of its own limitation of experience. Limitation is not a bad thing. We must have limitation for anything to exist in any purposeful way. On the other hand, those of us who work in illusion (as well as a hopefully larger perspective) understand very well the deception that occurs by such limitation and labeling. ‘I never want to touch the deck of cards at all’ is something an audience later recalls as truth. But a good card sharp says such a thing as he hands the deck to a person to shuffle. The word ‘never’ creates the false impression that the card sharp never, ever touches the cards. In physical fact, he himself handled the cards as he gave them over for a shuffle. In the process he has marked the cards or abused them in his favorite manner for his later benefit.”*

*Personal correspondence (2005). The Mystic of Magic’s website for magicians only is

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Tathata is an expression of wordless wonder from Mahayana Buddhism. Tathata celebrates the "thusness" or "suchness" of the transitory present moment. As no two moments are ever quite the same, tathata reminds us to open our eyes to the sublime. We are reminded of the opening lines of the song "This Magic Moment," popularized by The Drifters and Jay & the Americans: "This magic moment, so different and so new."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Cosmic Laws of Energy

Magicians, who can be thought of as a tribe of flashy philosophers, constantly demonstrate metaphysical and related dynamics—from the creation and destruction of matter (silk handkerchiefs or whatnot), to the concept of separation (cut ropes and sawed ladies), to the idea of harnessing limitless power through proper language and skillful handiwork. Magic words, written upon anything from a mystic-looking parchment scroll to an ordinary playing card, emblazoned on a t-shirt or appearing on skin rubbed with ash, can serve to represent and even embody the cosmic laws of energy—laws proclaimed and encoded within the very lines, curves, and arrangements of the letters.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Ashi Vanghuhi

In Zoroastrianism, Ashi Vanghuhi is the name of a Beneficent Immortal who presides over blessings.

Friday, October 10, 2008


We highlighted the magic word Italia in months past, but we couldn't resist this additional literary example:
This Italy of yours, on whose threshold I stand, is the home of history, of beauty, of the arts—of all that makes life splendid and sweet. Italy, for us dull strangers, is a magic word. We cross ourselves when we pronounce it. We are brought up to think that when we have earned leisure and rest—at some bright hour, when fortune smiles—we may go forth and cross oceans and mountains and see on Italian soil the primal substance—the Platonic ‘idea’—of our consoling dreams and our richest fancies. ... I begin to behold the promise of my dreams. It’s Italy. ... The air has a perfume; everything that enters my soul, at every sense, is a suggestion, a promise, a performance.
—Henry James, Travelling Companions (1870)

Thursday, October 9, 2008


Boodoongapita is featured in a folk story from India about a fussy boy who learns from a traveling magician a magic word to make anything displeasing disappear.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

One Great Memory

"I believe in the practice and philosophy of what we have agreed to call magic, in what I must call the evocation of spirits, though I do not know what they are, in the power of creating magical illusions, in the visions of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed; and I believe ... that the borders of our mind are ever shifting, and that many minds can flow into one another, as it were, and create or reveal a single mind, a single energy ... and that our memories are part of one great memory, the memory of Nature herself."
—W.B. Yeates, Ideas of Good and Evil

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

One Word: That's Magic

Professional magician John W. LeBlanc notes that there are “untold numbers of anecdotes told by professional performers who found that just changing one, single word made an enormous difference in the response of the audience to a performance piece. One word. That’s magic.”

As in the fables of old, “It’s in the words that the magic is—‘Abracadabra,’ ‘Open Sesame,’ and the rest—but the magic words in one story aren’t magical in the next. It seems . . . that the real magic is to understand which words work, and when, and for what” (John Barth, The Tidewater Tales, 1987).

Monday, October 6, 2008

Magic Words that Come to You

"A magic word may bring motivation. You can never tell when it is going to come. Therefore it is smart to keep your eyes, your ears and, supremely, your mind, open. For that magic word may indeed change you, and in doing so, change your life." —Norman Vincent Peale, You Can If You Think You Can, 1987


By the way, don't miss our extensive interview about magic words at Musings from a Muddy Island.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Antiquated Language and the Universal Mystery

Medieval conjurors first began using exotic words to “give their performances an air of authentic secret knowledge.”[1] Whether they employed pseudo-Latin phrases, nonsense syllables, or esoteric terms from religious antiquity, these magicians were doing far more than merely adding a bit of enigmatic audio to their visuals.[2] They were enhancing their specific illusions with a universal mystery: language as an instrument of creation.

Ancient-sounding words project an aura of tradition, of “‘old wisdom’ handed down through generations.”[3] It’s little wonder that the archetypical depiction of a magician involves the utterance of antiquated words, in addition to the grand gestures that impart a larger-than-life dimension to his activities.[4] And because archaic magic words necessarily predate a magician’s own life, they point to the existence of a “transcendent” realm beyond the logic and laws of our ordinary world.

[1] Paul Kriwaczek, In Search of Zarathustra: The First Prophet and the Ideas That Changed the World (2003)
[2] Needless to say, a magician’s patter can serve to distract, for “We get mesmerized by magic words” (Dale Mathers, An Introduction to Meaning and Purpose in Analytical Psychology [2002]).
[3] Jesper Sorensen, Magical Rituals and Conceptual Blending
[4] (2002)

Friday, October 3, 2008

Sim Sala Bim

Magician Steve Spill, of Magicopolis fame, shared with us how his copy of Magic Words: A Dictionary arrived at exactly the right moment, against astronomical odds:
Thank you so much for your scholarly work. I am pleased to tell you that your book, Magic Words, was put to good use the moment it arrived here at Magicopolis.

My friend Bob just finished a book I loaned him, Trouping with Dante by Marion Trikosko, and phoned to let me know he enjoyed it. He asked if I could tell him a little about the words Sim Sala Bim. Bob asked what the words mean, wanted to know their origin, and so on. I said that I thought they were made up by Dante but was not sure.

While telling him I would try and find out more, the mailman arrived with a package that I opened as we were talking. In it was a book, a most extraordinary book, Magic Words by Craig Conley.

“Bob,” I said into the phone, “Sim Sala Bim is the Swedish equivalent of abracadabra, and is known in other Scandinavian cultures as well…”

I then continued to give him information about the history of the words, how Whit Hadyn said they were nonsense syllables from a Danish nursery rhyme, and that Orson Welles used Sim Sala Bim as magic words in the 1967 film Casino Royale. I went on until Bob stopped me.

“Hey, Steve, where are you getting all this information?”

“From this dictionary of magic words,” I said calmly. “It just arrived in the mail.”

I couldn’t hold back any longer, and told him what had just happened. Bob thought I was kidding him. What a fantastic, unbelievable, mind-boggling coincidence we had just shared. What are the odds that I would get this obscure information in the mail at just the moment Bob asked for it? A quintillion to one would be my guess.

Thank you Craig for the surprise and wonder,

Steve Spill

Hili Hili Mili Mili

This meaningless mantra of Buddhist origin invokes planetary forces.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Women in Boxes

The documentary Women in Boxes, spearheaded by Blaire Baron Larsen, is a springboard for pondering the deeper significance of magicians placing their assistants in boxes. As performers, the duos likely have no idea what archetypal stories they're playing out. But something profound is going on, in light of the renowned psychologist Erich Neumann, a trailblazer in feminine psychology and the Great Mother archetype of world mythology. Applying Neumann's insights to stage magic, the prototypical female assistant symbolizes the anima -- that part of the psyche connected to the world of the subconscious -- the soul, if you will. The anima can be human or animal (hence the great tradition of women magically transforming into tigers). The prototypical male magician symbolizes the hero archetype on a quest toward individuality. In order to be truly creative, the magician's masculine world of ego consciousness must make a link to the feminine assistant's world of the soul. Through "sawing a lady in half," the magician tries to divide the anima, not so much to conquer her but to understand her like a scientist. He tries to contain the anima in a box, not to imprison her but to accommodate, encompass, and give definite form to her curvaceous amorphousness. Indeed, there's nothing inherently "sexist" about the roles of stage magician and assistant; the two form a single personality struggling to become integrated. (Read more of Neumann's wisdom in his indispensable The Origins and History of Consciousness. Here's a link to Camille Paglia's profile of Neumann). See the Women in Boxes website for the trailer, gallery, and DVD information.


The Japanese equivalent to abracadabra, dogura-magura means “magic used by Christians” in the Kyushu dialect of the Nagasaki area. This area was home to early Jesuit and European merchant settlements.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Open Sesame

Open sesame, one of the most celebrated magic phrases, held enough power for Ali Baba to shift boulders and open a passage into the unknown. This colorful, centuries-old fable points to a literal truth about the power and importance of magic words:
We know that words cannot move mountains, but they can move the multitude. . . . Words shape thought, stir feeling, and beget action; they kill and revive, corrupt and cure. The “men of words”—priests, prophets, intellectuals—have played a more decisive role in history than military leaders, statesmen, and businessmen.
Words and magic are particularly crucial in time of crisis when old forms of life are in dissolution and man must grapple with the unknown. Normal motives and incentives lose then their efficacy. Man does not plunge into the unknown in search of the prosaic and matter-of-fact. His soul has to be stretched by reaching out for the fabulous and unprecedented. He needs the nurse of magic and breath-taking fairy tales to lure him on and sustain him in his faltering first steps. Even modern science and technology were not in the beginning a sober pursuit of facts and knowledge. Here, too, the magicians—alchemists, astrologers, visionaries—were the pioneers.
—Eric Hoffer, The Ordeal of Change (1976)
From ideology to science, from spiritualism to cultural revolutions, words open passages into the unknown. And anyone, whether leader or follower, for whom discourse serves as a first step to unexplored territory, is an Ali Baba, a personal pioneer.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Peanut Butter and Sesame Seeds

Abba Zabba recalls the expanse of the alphabet, A (abba) to Z (zabba), the alpha and omega of creative power. The words appear in a Captain Beefheart song of the same name (1974). The lyrics are a sort of nursery rhyme about childhood rituals and seem to suggest that the primal syllables abba zabba are “song before song before song.” Abba Zabba is also the name of an old-fashioned peanut butter taffy candy bar. Interestingly, peanut butter figures into other magic words. "A-la Peanut Butter Sandwiches" has appeared in a "Rugrats" comic strip and is the Amazing Mumford’s magic expression on the Sesame Street television series. The peanut is like the sesame seed of "Open Sesame" fame—a spiritual food which unlocks a doorway to a world of wonders. The pods of peanuts and sesame plants open to reveal their seeds, just as the wall of rock opened for the legendary Ali Baba when he said the secret password.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Magic Words for Surviving Trauma

Two entries from our new edition of Magic Words are featured in this review/editorial about the importance of magic words for people recovering from trauma:

Saturday, September 27, 2008


Of Native American origin, this word refers to “The Great Spirit of Peace.” Consider this anecdote: “The chief invited a great council and organized the Society of the Magic Word. Every member promised that whenever the greeting ‘Boneka’ were given him, he would smile and bow and answer, ‘Ranokoli.’ The greeting meant ‘Peace,’ and the answer, ‘I forgive.’ Then, one by one, the law-giver called his councilors before him, and to each he said: ‘The Great Spirit is in this greeting. I defy you to hear it and keep a sober face.’ Then he said ‘Boneka,’ and the man would try to resist the influence of the spirit, but soon smiled in spite of himself, amid the laughter of the tribe, and said ‘Ranokoli.’ Thereafter, when a quarrel arose between two people, an outsider, approaching, would greet them with the magic word, and immediately they would bow and smile, and answer, ‘I forgive’” (Irving Bacheller, Silas Strong, 1906).

Friday, September 26, 2008

Magic Words in Politics

Politicians use magic words to rally, inspire, capture the public's collective imagination, distort logic, and obscure reality. Politicians accomplish some of this with ordinary language to shape our perceptions and expectations and to misdirect our attention. Many words politicians use possess massive clout: freedom, liberty, and solidarity evoke sentiments for which millions of have laid down their lives. A concept deemed worth dying for is, accordingly, life-enhancing.

A major magic word in the current United States presidential race is change. A short form of Presto Chango, change is a transfixing word that electrifies the air. It etches itself into people's memories, because it is the moment they opened up to the possibility of the impossible. It asks us to jump outside ourselves with courage and humor and openness and perspective and carelessness. Change is the sudden, momentary standstill in a square dance when there's a call to switch partners. Change is the whack when a bat sends a baseball soaring. It's an immensity revealing itself—a greatness that can't be explained but that reveals itself in that instant and reminds us of our own possibilities. The magic of change sweeps people into standing ovations, so it's little wonder that politicians have harnessed its power.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Kiowa Storytelling

There is a marvelous discussion of sacred language in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel House Made of Dawn (1966) by N. Scott Momaday, in which words are equated with sleight-of-hand. Momaday speaks of his Kiowa Indian grandmother teaching him how to “listen and delight” through her storytelling. With her words, she took him “directly into the presence of her mind and spirit.” As he explains, “[S]he was taking hold of my imagination, giving me to share in the great fortune of her wonder and delight. She was asking me to go with her to the confrontation of something that was sacred and eternal. It was a timeless, timeless thing.” For his grandmother, “words were medicine; they were magic and invisible. They came from nothing into sound and meaning.” As in Genesis, the Kiowa creation story begins with something happening in the nothingness. “There was a voice, a sound, a word—and everything began.”

Let us apply Momaday’s discussion directly to the art of a magician by positing a few questions:
  • Does not a magician want his audience to “listen and delight” in his performance?
  • Does not a magician want to draw an entire audience into his presence?
  • Does not a magician wish to take hold of people’s imaginations and help them to share in the awe and wonderment?
  • Does not a magician wish to present a timeless mystery?
By speaking a magic word, a magician most certainly encourages his audience to “listen and delight” as he encompasses them in his presence, takes hold of their collective imagination, and allows them to share in the “wonder.” By uttering his magic word, a magician invites the audience to accompany him in confronting something “sacred and eternal . . . a timeless thing,” as Momaday puts it. And when he produces the magic syllables for all to hear, a magician makes every member of the audience an active participant in the miracle. For “in the world of magic, the Word creates.”*

* Gahl Sasson, A Wish Can Change Your Life: How to Use the Ancient Wisdom of Kabbalah to Make Your Dreams Come True (2003). Howard Rheingold writes that “We create the world every day when we utter words. Yet we are rarely aware of this awesome act. The power of words is woven so tightly into our daily lives that we hardly ever take time to marvel at it. Our ancestors knew, though: It is no accident that many of the world’s religious scriptures assert that the universe was created by a word” (They Have a Word for It [2000]). Migene Gonzalez-Wippler provides an example: “The Kabbalah has a fascinating story to tell on the creation of the world by sound. It says that when God decided to create the universe He was uncertain as to which letter he would use to begin creation. All the letters of the Hebrew alphabet came to God in one long line and each pleaded with Him to use it, naming and vastly exaggerating all its wonderful qualities. God listened to all of them thoughtfully, and finally decided on the letter Beth, which means house or container. With the power of the letter Beth God ‘contained’ the unmanifested universe and created the entire cosmos” (The Complete Book of Spells, Ceremonies and Magic [1978]).

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


A magic word for conjuring Sylphs,[1] Agla is an angelic name signifying eternal power, the fruitful principle of nature, strength, protection, and unity. Of Hebrew origin, it is found on magical talismans and seals from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, used in healing magic and divination. Agla is actually an acronym, made up of the initials of the sentence Atah gebur le-olahm Adonai, meaning “Thine is the power throughout endless ages, O Lord.”[2] Here is an interesting occurrence of the name in literature: “‘My name is Agla,’ she said. ‘My mother was Agla, and her mother was, also. It is the name for a healer, although some of the barbarians believe that I am a witch’” (Ben Bova, Orion, 1984).

[1] Anatole France, The Queen Pedauque (1893)
[2] Paul Foster Case, True and Invisible Rosicrucian Order (1981)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


“In the Vedic religion the gods are often represented as attaining their ends by magical means; in particular the god Brhaspati, ‘the creator of all prayers,’ is regarded as ‘the heavenly embodiment of the priesthood, in so far as the priesthood is invested with the power, and charged with the task, of influencing the course of things by prayers and spells’; in short, he is ‘the possessor of the magical power of the holy word.’”
—James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1890)

Monday, September 22, 2008


Tsi-Nan-Fu is the capital of Shantung Province in China. The phrase is both spoken and seen to glimmer in the Fritz Lang film Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler [1922]: “[V]on Wenk reaches to turns his cards over, but beneath them the magical words Tsi-Nan-Fu sparkle” [Tom Gunning, The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, 2000].

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas

This untranslatable palindromic charm, discovered as graffiti in Pompeii, dates back to the first century CE. Written as a “magic square,” the sentence reads the same left to right, bottom to top, top to bottom, and backwards.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Vê, Não Vê

Vê, Não Vê is a Portuguese expression equivalent to “now you see it, now you don’t.” Modern-day Amazonian storytellers use the phrase in tales that intermingle the mysterious with the macabre.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


Sabbac is a magic word from the comic book Outsiders (2004) that transforms a villain into demon-form. An acronym, Sabbac stands for the names of various demonic lords: Satan, Any, Belial, Beelzebub, Asmodeus, and Craeteis, endowing the speaker with the powers of each of these creatures.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


There are profound truths in that old cliché of a magician pulling a rabbit out of an empty hat with the magic word abracadabra. Almost everyone recognizes the image. But what relatively few people know is that our stereotypical magician is speaking an ancient Hebrew phrase that means “I will create with words.”[1] He is making something out of nothing, echoing that famous line from Genesis: “Let there be light, and there was light.” Only in this case, the magician’s venue being already equipped with light, the magic is applied toward the creation of rabbits—and perhaps a sensational flash of supplementary illumination, in the form of fire.

The magic word, whether it be abracadabra or another at the magician’s disposal, resonates with the audience because there is an instinctive understanding that words are powerful, creative forces. “The word has always held an ancient enchantment for humans,” says scholar Ted Andrews. “It hints of journeys into unseen and unmapped domains.”[2] No wonder it has been said that “all magic is in a word.”[3]

[1] David Aaron, Endless Light: The Ancient Path of Kabbalah (1998)
[2] Simplified Qabala Magic (2003)
[3] Alphonse Louis Constant (Eliphas Levi), The Key of the Mysteries (1861)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


The name Rumpelstiltskin originated in a German folktale about a magical little man who has gold thread spun from straw. The secret of his true name is the source of his power.

Monday, September 15, 2008


Sheamarag is the Scottish Gaelic word for the shamrock of power, luck, and good omens. According to lore, the shamrock of luck (a very rare five-leaved plant) must be discovered without deliberately looking for it. "When thus discovered the lucky shamrock is warmly cherished and preserved as an invincible talisman."*

*Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations with Illustrative Notes on Words, Rites, and Customs, Dying and Obsolete (1900)

Sunday, September 14, 2008


We were enchanted by this magical-sounding word highlighted by our friends at Futility Closet:
Mamihlapinatapais, from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego, is considered the world's most succinct word — and the hardest to translate.

It means "a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other will initiate something that both desire but that neither one wants to start."

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Holy Moly

Holy moly. Is this magic?
—George Fujita, “Mu’umu’u,” The Best of Hawaii’s Best Spooky Tales (2006)
Popularized by the Captain Marvel comics in 1940, “Holy Moly” is an expression of wonderment that recalls a magic herb of Greek mythology. Sporting white flowers and black roots, moly was Hermes’ gift to Odysseus, to protect against incantations.

Friday, September 12, 2008


Of Hawaiian origin, Aloha refers to the breath of life that all living creatures share. It is a magical chant that opens the heart.[1] It is a sacred name signifying unconditional love, sharing, mutual regard, hope, good fortune, compassion, and a welcoming nature. This “simple word that is so much more than a word”[2] is the key to the universal spirit, understanding, and fellowship.[3] “Aloha is the ability to put yourself into the mind, heart, and soul of another,” explains Kenneth F. Brown. “Native Hawaiian spirituality is one of humanity’s treasures, and contact with its wisdom is always a gift,” says spiritual author Marianne Williamson.

[1] Susan Gregg, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Spiritual Healing (2000)
[2] Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, Chicken Soup for the Soul of Hawaii (2003)
[3] Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, quoted in Chicken Soup for the Soul of Hawaii (2003)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Making a Spell "Thine"

Intrigued by these words of the poet:
Enchanter! thou hast made the spell thine own.
we sought to transform the word spell into the word thine, changing one letter at a time. Voilà:


Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Shirak is the name of a rugged, “musically fertile” region of northwest Armenia. As a magic spell, shirak tends to be associated with creating illumination, as at the tip of a wand or staff. The word has been popularized by the fantasy novels of North American author Margaret Weis (born 1948).

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Tiny Devices of Explosive Meaning

Today we stumbled upon a marvelous testament to the power of magic words, in translator Linda Coverdale's introduction to the novel Street of Lost Footsteps. Coverdale discusses language "rich in allusions and wordplay, flickering with hidden significance, studded with tiny devices of explosive meaning that may burst upon the reader when least expected. This richness can be a form of economy: a single detail, like a magic word, might reveal an import far beyond its humble appearance."

Monday, September 8, 2008


In the Oz books by L. Frank Baum, it is said that to transform people and objects, this word must be pronounced correctly. The Munchkin named Bini Aru, who discovered the word, hid away the pronunciation directions after Princess Ozma decreed that only Glinda could practice magic in the land.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The World is Made of Language

"I don’t believe that the world is made of quarks or electromagnetic waves, or stars, or planets, or any of these things. I believe the world is made of language."

—Terence McKenna, quoted in ‘Terence McKenna’, Wild Ducks Flying Backward; the short writings of Tom Robbins, 2005.

via DJMisc

Saturday, September 6, 2008


“If there is magic on the planet,” said naturalist and philosopher Loren Eisley, “it is contained in the water.” Mississippi is a fluid word rich with magical connotations. It’s a word that meanders, gathering strength as it channels the mighty energy or converging rivers.

Friday, September 5, 2008


Of Japanese origin, shibumi’s meanings include wisdom, serenity, inner peace, effortless authority, perfection, and elegant, unpretentious beauty. Shibumi is a magical state of mind in which manifestation automatically follows intention. The word is related to Zen Buddhist concept of Sabi, an expression of the everyday world “veiled exquisitely with the mist of transcendental inwardness” (Daisetz Suzuki, Zen Buddhism [1956]).

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Fugitives from Fairy Tales and Dreams

Magic words, to use the colorful phraseology of diarist Anaïs Nin, are like fugitives from a subtle world of fairy tales and dreams, “beyond the law of gravity [and] chaos.” They comprise a mysterious language “which is shadowy and full of reverberations” and deep in meaning. They catch the essence of “what we pursue in the night dream, and which eludes us, the incident which evaporates as we awake.”[1] They establish a sacred space where miracles can occur. And of course they trigger transformations. “‘Magic words’ . . . immediately lead to action and transform reality.”[2]

[1] Anaïs Nin, Fire: From ‘A Journal of Love’: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1934-1937 (1995)
[2] Anthony Olszewski, “When Baraka Blows His Horn” (2004)

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Medu is both a magic wand and a magic word:
Horus of the South . . . held forth his empty hand, and lo! a stick was in it. 'Medu,' he said, 'is the word for stick. It is also the word for word. Therefore I draw a magic word with this stick.' He said all this in a great mumble: 'Medu is the medu for medu, as is medu, medu. Whereby medu may beget medu.' But with the point of his stick he drew a triangle. A flame rushed out and burned in the air with such a great noise that all of the Court drew back.
—Norman Mailer, Ancient Evenings, 1983

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A Wordcloud

This wordcloud of the Magic Words blog is courtesy of Gordon Meyer and his lovely assistant Wordle.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Winko Winko

Presto, Chango that’s a thing of the past
Winko, Winko works twice as fast.
—John Marion Gart and John Redmond, “Winky Dink” (1953)

Saturday, August 30, 2008


The words hot pad are at the heart of a mental magic effect (link to PDF), by the folks at The Journal of Recreational Linguistics.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Zorami Zaitux Elastot

These ancient Egyptian words for instant success were believed to call upon the assistance of “enough genii for the immediate achievement” of any undertaking.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


Even more than its cousin cadabra, the Aramaic magic word kedavra is shrouded by an ominous, dark aura of necromancy. As part of a killing curse, kedavra has gained worldwide popularity via the Harry Potter series.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Primal Amazement

What is the source of primal amazement? Language has the power to reawaken vestiges of humankind’s earliest communication—our ancient ancestors’ savage cries of anger or love. All such cries were commands, “originally bound up with the act” and indeed inseparable to the primitive mind. Much in the way that a small child learns to conjure up a parent from the unseen void of an adjoining room, simply by employing a magic word like “Mama,” we can reflect that “The savage called his friend’s name, and saw his friend turn and answer; what more natural to conclude than that the name itself in some way compelled an answer?” (Joy Davidman, Smoke on the Mountain, 1953).

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


This mumbled word is used to summon an invisible swordsman in the film ¡Three Amigos! (1986).

Monday, August 25, 2008

An Eye of Newt with 20/20 Vision

Our magician friend and tech wizard Gordon Meyer offers this handy eye chart for focusing on the upcoming publication of Magic Words: A Dictionary. Our new edition of the dictionary features Gordon's magic spell for bringing a snowman to life.

Sunday, August 24, 2008


Said to express everything because it means nothing, jitanjáfora is a playful appeal to fantasy. Common to Spanish Afro-Caribbean vanguard poetry, the term was coined by Mexican writer Alfonso Reyes in his book La Experiencia Literaria (1942).

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Exclaimed by a High Priestess at the end of a chant, the magic word harrahya could be likened to the shout of a martial artist delivering a karate chop, focusing power toward an amazing conclusion.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Jiggery Pokery

Jiggery pokery is action with astonishing results or a clever deception. It is the name of one of the plagues and misfortunes that was contained inside Pandora’s box of mythology.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Bessen Berithen Berio

Jungian scholar Marie-Louise von Franz notes that these words appear in the only creation myth in which the Godhead laughs, after which “light appeared and its splendor shone through the whole universe” [Creation Myths, 1972]. The myth dates from late antiquity, likely from Hellenized Egypt.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


This magic word was coined by Charles Dickens for his novel David Copperfield. It refers to a grand deception.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Words as Containers of Magic

Jim Butcher, author of mystery novels set in a magic-enabled world, posits that words aren’t so much magical in themselves as they are containers that hold the magic. “They give [magic] a shape and a form, they make it useful, describe the images within.” One might imagine a magician’s enchanted silk as such a container, giving shape and form to the invisible magic force that animates it. Or one might picture the age-old cup-and-ball tumbler, or the magician’s signature top hat, as delineating a space within which marvels occur.

Monday, August 18, 2008


Desturi is a magic word “to unfold the inexplicable.” Of Swahili origin, the word refers to respected customs. In East Africa, customs are considered sacred and unquestionable.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


Delving through dusty old tomes in search of ancient expressions of enchantment, we noticed that one word in particular seems the very essence: Coldpot! With the purity of a singing bowl, this mystic word resonates alchemy and conjures images of a witch’s cauldron. Recalling the “cold pot” of metallurgy, this odd compound word fuses a rounded form (“pot”) with a degree of intensity (“cold”), suggesting alchemical coagulation.[1] The more we studied this unusual word coldpot, the more magic we discovered within it. Indeed, coldpot is brimming with expectations, unlikelihoods, fulfillments of high commands, and even a dollop of danger.

Like black holes bending the very fabric of space, cold pots are famous for disrupting the flow of time. Lest you forget, “Nothing makes time pass more slowly than waiting for a cold pot to boil.”[2] The quaint folk wisdom that a watched pot won’t boil actually speaks to the “observer effect” in physics, in which the act of witnessing changes the beheld phenomenon. It’s as if the cold pot is saying, “Don’t look at me—I’m merely the vehicle for the change you desire. Focus on what’s important, and take all the time you need.”

A cold pot calls for a spark, as the Sufi mystics have said. For “fire is put under the cold pot, not the pot which is boiling over.”[3] Ignition and expectation—both are at the heart of the magic word coldpot. Within the word itself is contained the possibility of highly-unlikely events coming to pass. Statistically speaking, “a cold pot of water could spontaneously come to a boil; it is simply not very likely. But unlikely events are quasi-certain to happen if we wait long enough.”[4] The sparkling occurrence of highly-unlikely events is the very heart of magic.

[1] For example, “a cold pot full of something congealed” is described in The Heirs by G. Y. Dryansky (1978)
[2] This old saying is recalled by Leon Uris in A God in Ruins (2000)
[3] Jalal al-Din Rumi, Tales from the Masnavi (1961)
[4] Herman Daly and Joshua Farley, Ecological Economics (2003)

For a full discussion of coldpot, see our Pentacle Magazine feature.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


When a mother tells her child a bedtime story from African folklore, she traditionally requires the child to say the protective magic word chosi. That’s the word that prevents evil fairies from giving one horns.

Friday, August 15, 2008


The four aces, so often coaxed from a magician’s deck of cards, spell out a mystical word discovered in the Greek magical papyri (second century BCE). Aaaa was a sacred, vibratory word of power, sometimes chanted in conjunction with the name of a deity (Hans Dieter Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, 1986.)

Thursday, August 14, 2008


"I realized the meaning of the phrase, 'the magic word Chicago.'" —Stephen Graham, With Poor Immigrants to America (1914)
Magician and tech wizard Gordon Meyer has created a map of Chicago's magical history. As Gordon is an engineering guru who handles plenty of live wires, we dug up the following quotation in his honor:
"The magic name of Chicago, gentlemen, the sound of which is an inspiration to every live wire in the country." —Jules Girardin, Proceedings of the Annual Convention of the National Association of Life Underwriters (1910)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


In the poem “Why!” [Konstantin Pavlov 1981], Perciphedron is a magic word written in white letters on the belly of a fish named “Kron-zhig,” who lies on the bottom of the ocean and emerges from the deep every century to shriek her own name.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Cei-u [pronounced ‘say you’] is the word that gives North American comic book character Johnny Thunder [Flash Comics, 1940] the power to summon The Thunderbolt (his magical partner who appears as a puff of pink smoke).

Monday, August 11, 2008


Found in 18th-century Kabbalistic treatises, matba is a spell for obtaining small coins. It literally means “bring forth” [S. Liddell MacGregor Mathers, The Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, Book III, translated 1898]. As a talisman to be carried in one’s money purse, matba was to be written on a small square of paper.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


According to Egyptologists, the word heka means “magic.” Heka is derived from the Egyptian root hek, meaning to rule and to speak with authority.

Saturday, August 9, 2008


“By total submission to the aerial imagination, we will hear these two words pronounced as we breathe, before we even think about them: vie (life) and âme (soul) – vie as we breathe in; âme as we breathe out. Vie is a word that shows aspiration, âme expiration.” [Gaston Bachelard, Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement, 1943].

Friday, August 8, 2008


Xatanitos is an antiquated word for use during card shuffling and for luck involving five cards. This word comes from an Egyptian book of magical talismans entitled Treasure of the Old Man of the Pyramids, “translated from the Language of the Magi” in the eighteenth century [Arthur Edward Waite, The Book of Ceremonial Magic, 1913].

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Turius und Shurius Inturius

This late sixteenth century phrase originated in the Netherlands and figured into the witchcraft trials of the 1700s. In Amsterdam “a crazy girl confessed that she could cause sterility in cattle, and bewitch pigs and poultry by merely repeating the magic words Turius und Shurius Inturius! She was hanged and burned”. [Charles Mackay, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, 1841].

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


This melodic name traces back to a writer of treatises on practical mysticism, the Jewish scholar Abraham Abulafia (1240-c.1292). Denounced and branded as a heretic, he is now recognized as one of the great Kabbalists. This passage from literature celebrates the euphonic quality of the name: “Even the sound of Abulafia’s name sets off music in her head. A-bu-la-fi-a. It’s magic, the open sesame that unblocked the path to her father and then to language itself” (Myla Goldberg, Bee Season, 2000).

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


The imp known as Mr.Mxyztplk [later changed to Mxyzptlk] first appeared in our dimension in DC comics Superman #30 [1st series, 1944] in a story by Jerry Siegel with art by John Sikela. He tells Superman that there is no way he can be tricked into saying the magic word “Klptzyxm” that will return him to his own dimension. Carelessly saying the word, Mxyztplk vanishes.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Any Word Can Be a Magic Word

If intoned in the proper spirit, any word can be a magic word. In The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life (1997), Thomas Moore notes that “we may evoke the magic in words by their placement, . . . rhyme, assonance, intonation, emphasis, and, as [mythologist James] Hillman suggests, historical context.” Even the mundane connotations of the words we use depend frequently on the many details of their packaging. The more essential the responsibilities we intend for a given word, the more we depend on the magic of its presentation. A “key” word should enjoy a flourish as it is revealed. We should draw it forth like a prestidigitator who, with great drama, produces an egg from his mouth.

Sunday, August 3, 2008


“Magus waved his hooves and spoke the ancient magic word, ‘Adarakadabara!’” [Clever Clover, “Magical Pony Girl Enchantment,” My Little Pony Monthly, 2002]. My Little Pony is a product line by the American toy and game company Hasbro.


In unrelated news, here's a blog post about the magic word "how."

Saturday, August 2, 2008


The Hebrew word Aemaeat appears in the biblical Psalm 25:10 and is usually translated as ‘truth.’ The word also appears written in smoke in the film The Golem [Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam 1920] by German expressionist filmmakers Carl Boese and Paul Wegener, exploring the creation myth of the golem in the 16th century.

Friday, August 1, 2008


Likely derived from the old Greek word theos, meaning “to shine” with divine light, Syos was used by magicians in the 12th and 13th centuries to establish to cardinal directions. “Having reached the potter’s earth, he plants his heel upon it and turning successively to the East, South, and North, repeats the magic word ‘Syos’ to each of those cardinal points.” [Lynn Thorndike, History of Magic and Experimental Science, 8 vol., 1923–58].

Thursday, July 31, 2008


Have you ever been mesmerized while waiting for the sunrise? As you watch the horizon for that first burst of light, you get swept up in the eternal present moment. With baited breath, your sense of time is suspended, and you’re primed for a miracle. This is the “liminal zone,” the threshold between night and day, between here and there, between this and that. It’s the crossroads where anything is possible. And then the dawn breaks through, like a sudden burst of inspiration, like an act of creation: “Let there be light.” That is the magic of Abraxas, an enigmatic name that has perhaps always been closely associated with the power of the sun. This “strange, mysterious name”[1] captures that magical, suspended, timeless moment: “all of time as an eternal instant.”[2] Abraxas is the power of infinity—the promise of endless possibilities, the “cosmos” itself.[3] In mythology, Abraxas is the name of a celestial horse that draws the dawn goddess Aurora across the sky.[4] The name suggests a power that is not properly ours but rather a gift from another world.

But what of the name’s origin? It is likely, as an etymologist posited in 1891, that Abraxas belongs “to no known speech” but rather some “mystic dialect,” perhaps taking its origin “from some supposed divine inspiration.”[5] Yet scholars, of course, search for a root. There are speculatory shreds of evidence which suggest that Abraxas is a combination of two Egyptian words, abrak and sax, meaning “the honorable and hallowed word” or “the word is adorable.”[6] Abrak is “found in the Bible as a salutation to Joseph by the Egyptians upon his accession to royal power.”[7] Abraxas appears in “an Egyptian invocation to the Godhead, meaning ‘hurt me not.’”[8] Other scholars suggest a Hebrew origin of the word, positing “a Grecized form of ha-berakhah, ‘the blessing,’” while still others speculate a derivation from the Greek habros and sac, “the beautiful, the glorious Savior.”[9] The name has appeared in the ancient Hebrew/Aramaic mystical treatises The Book of Raziel and The Sword of Moses, and in post-Talmudic Jewish incantation texts,[10] as well as in Persian mythology.[11]

An interesting occurrence of Abraxas is found in a papyrus from late antiquity (perhaps from Hellenized Egypt, though its exact origin is unknown). The papyrus contains “magical recipes, invocations, and incantations,” and tells of a baboon disembarking the Sun boat and proclaiming: “Thou art the number of the year ABRAXAS.” This statement causes God to laugh seven times, and with the first laugh the “splendor [of light] shone through the whole universe.”[12]

The Basilideans, a Gnostic sect founded in the 2nd century CE by Basilides of Alexandria, worshipped Abraxas as the “supreme and primordial creator” deity, “with all the infinite emanations.”[13] The god Abraxas unites the opposites, including good and evil,[14] the one and the many.[15] He is “symbolized as a composite creature, with the body of a human being and the head of a rooster, and with each of his legs ending in a serpent.”[16] His name is actually a mathematical formula: in Greek, the letters add up to 365, the days of the year[17] and the number of eons[18] (cycles of creation).

“That a name so sacredly guarded, so potent in its influence, should be preserved by mystic societies through the many ages . . . is significant,”[19] notes Moses W. Redding, a scholar of secret societies. Redding suggests that only in Freemasonry has this “Divine Word” been “held in due reverence.”[21]

[1] Annemarie Schimmel, The Mystery of Numbers (1993)
[2] Gene Wolfe, Shadow and Claw (1994)
[3] Carl Jung, the third sermon of the Seven Sermons to the Dead (1917)
[4] Anna Franklin, Midsummer: Magical Celebrations of the Summer Solstice (2002)
[5] Harnaek, Ueber dal gnostische Buch Pistil-Sophia, quoted in Philip Schaff, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. I
[6] Philip Schaff, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. I
[7] Moses W. Redding, The Illustrated History of Freemasonry (2004)
[8] Philip Schaff, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. I
[9] Ibid.
[10] Moshe Idel, Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion (2004)
[11] Constance Victoria Briggs, The Encyclopedia of God (2003)
[12] Marie-Louise Von Franz, Creation Myths (1972)
[13] Zecharia Sitchin, The Cosmic Code (1998)
[14] Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874), translated by Lafcadio Hearn
[15] Tracy R. Twyman, The Merovingian Mythos and the Mystery of Rennes-le-Chateau (2004)
[16] Marc Ian Barasch, Healing Dreams (2001)
[17] Manly Palmer Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages (1928)
[18] John Michael Greer, The New Encyclopedia of the Occult (2003)
[19] Carl Lindahl, Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs (2002)
[20] The Illustrated History of Freemasonry (2004)
[21] Ibid.