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)