Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Amy Harrington is dumbfounded that the word mojo was not included in her library's copy of Magic Words: A Dictionary. The answer is simple, Amy: mojo is a synonym for magic, not a magic word in itself. (See our introduction to the dictionary for a highly detailed discussion of what constitutes a magic word.) Mojo would make for a great entry in a thesaurus of magic words. It is indeed a great word, and here's how it might have looked as an entry in Magic Words: A Dictionary:

Hocus pocus, mojo, whatever you want to call it.
—Jim Harrison, Conversations with Jim Harrison (2002)

Mystique: Mojo possesses an aura of mystery carried across the ocean by West African shamans caught up in slave ships. The word does not refer to fakery or trickery1 but to the working of sympathetic magic. “Mojo can simply mean magic—a magic imbued with African flavor and with the need of indentured peoples to take some control over their lives. And yes, it’s tricky, powerful, and dangerous if not used wisely.”2 The word’s connotations of witchcraft make it a favorite of exotic street performers. For example, physicist Emanuel Derman recalls “a hip-looking, mustachioed, good-humored, short, dark guy who juggled, ate fire, swallowed swords, and often used the word mojo.”3 Mojo refers to the extra spark that helps one to “get that little bit more out of any situation.”4 In other words, “the mojo assists its carrier to view life positively, to create deliberately, to attract delicious life experiences, to have what she or he truly wants.”5

  • bewitchment
  • black magic
    “Mojo. Black magic.” —Lori Handeland, Rising Moon (2007)
  • charm or medicinal root bag
  • charming or cunning personality
    —Tony Rufo, The Complete Book of Pop Music Wit and Wisdom (2006)
  • folk magic
  • hex
  • hocus pocus
    “Legend has it that the apostle’s fossils are full of some kind of magic mojo, holy hocus pocus that could turn an entire army to mush.” —Greg Mandel, High Hat (2008)
  • magic
    “Some magic. Some mojo.” —Joey Anuff and Gary Wolf, Dumb Money (2000)
  • magician
    “Some people, like Yolanda, were mojos—could work magic without any extra help.” —Carol Fenner, Yolanda’s Genius (2001)
  • magic power
    “A magician worried his mojo was losing its potency.” —Vibe Magazine (April 1996)
  • magic spell
  • main, principal, master
    “The mojo portion of thanks to my wife.” —Jeff Wallach, Best Places to Golf Northwest (2004)
  • a mechanism for magic that unleashes the “sayso,” the power to survive a crisis
    —Carolyn Casey Craig, Women Pulitzer Playwrights (2004)
  • moxie
  • luck
  • Mercurial
    “A mojo man who changes his identity to suit whatever country he’s in.” —Annabel Johnson and Edgar Johnson, Gamebuster (1990)
  • mystical pixie dust
    —Ted Gioia, Delta Blues (2008)
  • personal energy, vitality, zest, verve, pizzazz, passion, feistiness
    —Gary Bertwistle, Who Stole My Mojo? (2008)
  • power
    “Mojo is power and magic and goodness—it’s an intangible thing that can’t be adequately described in words.” —Gary Erickson and Lois Ann Lorentzen, Raising the Bar (2004)
  • superstition
  • talisman
  • vendor of magical items (roots, herbs, animal parts)
    —Malachi Andrews and Paul T. Owens, Black Language (1973)
  • sorcery
  • witchcraft
  • wizardry

The word mojo “emanated from West and Central African linguistic antecedents.”6 It originally referred specifically to the rosary of a slave elder7 and later referred to a magic spell cast by spitting.8 The word has also been traced to the West African mojuba, meaning “prayer or homage.”9

  • The Cuban drink mojito “is the diminutive of this loan-word [mojo] and means ‘little spell.’”10
  • In the film Juke Girl (1942), mojo refers to black magic and jomo to white magic. Similarly, in the culture of New Orleans, mojo is “bad magic” as opposed to juju, “good magic.”11
  • The African American novelist Chester Boman Himes (d. 1984) was dubbed “‘the Great Mojo Bojo’ (master of occult knowledge).”12
  • In the Marvel Comic Longshot #3 (Nov. 1985), Mojo is a spineless sorcerer from the Mojoverse.
  • The war cry “Mojo mojo mojo” is chanted by fans of the Odessa, Texas Permian Panthers football team.
  • In the parlance of jazz, mojo is a reference to drugs and sex.13
  • The “Mojo Triangle,” stretching from the Mississippi Delta, to Memphis, to Nashville, is the birthplace of jazz, blues, rock ’n’ roll, and country music.14
  • In the film The Powerpuff Girls (2002), Mojo Jojo is the name of a power-hungry villain.15

Variations and Incantations:
  • magic mojo
  • Mo-Jo
    “A Mo-Jo Spell could vanquish an enemy or return a lost love.” —California Astrology Association
  • Mo-Jo! Mo-Jo! Mo-Jo! Mo-Jo!
    —H. G. Bissinger, Friday Night Lights (2000)
  • Mojo, Mojo! O-m! O—o—m! O—hhhhhhhhhmmmm!!!
    —Mafika Pascal Gwala, Jol’iinkomo (1977)

In Literature:
  • “If we are able to accept the ancient magic of mojo and its ritualistic drums, why not the mysteries of Confucius and his oracles?” —Virginia Eggertsen Sorensen, The Man with the Key (1974)
  • “He became fully conscious in the midst of a dream, still asleep but aware of his state, and primed with the generally vapid knowledge of a thousand volumes of magical mystical mojo.” —Peter Luber, Oneironauticus (2008)
  • “A Hoodoo sun shines and a lucky mojo rain falls.” —Doctor Snake, Dr. Snake’s Voodoo Spellbook (2000)
  • “Some of this mojo rubbed off on us from our shamanic ancestors.” —Oscar London, From Voodoo to Viagra: The Magic of Medicine (2001)
  • “Mo-jo mo-jo / there’s a new lion in the kingdom” —Gregory Corso, Mindfield (1998)

  1. Alan Dundes, Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel (1981)
  2. Nalo Hopkinson, Mojo: Conjure Stories (2003)
  3. My Life as a Quant (2004)
  4. Gary Bertwistle, Who Stole My Mojo? (2008)
  5. James Green, The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook (2000)
  6. Yvonne Chireau, Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (2006)
  7. Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, Fragments of Bone: Neo-African Religions in a New World (2005)
  8. Joseph E. Holloway, Africanisms in American Culture (2005)
  9. Joanne O’Sullivan, Halloween (2003)
  10. Jared McDaniel Brown, Anistatia Renard Miller, Dave Broom, Cuba: The Legend of Rum (2009)
  11. Lori Handeland, Midnight Moon (2006)
  12. Stephen F. Milliken, Chester Himes (1976)
  13. Doug Lennox, Now You Know: Big Book of Answers (2007)
  14. James Dickerson, Mojo Triangle (2005)
  15. Leonard Maltin, Leonard Maltin’s 2009 Movie Guide (2008)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Power in Knowing the Words

"We find amongst men of all degrees of civilization a deep-seated belief in the magic potency of words. This belief underlies all kinds of charms and incantations. It is not the magician who forces the demon to appear or produces the convulsion of nature, but the words themselves which the magician speaks. His power consists only in knowing the words."
—James Bradstreet Greenough & George Lyman Kittredge, Words and Their Ways in English Speech, 1915

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Magic Words

In his book Win the Crowd, magician Steve Cohen devotes an entire chapter to 'Magic Words.' These are not the classic words, such as abracadabra or presto, that magicians have used since time immemorial, but rather ordinary words and phrases that, when employed properly, can makes one's speech more powerful and allow one to influence others.

Cohen gives ten examples of speech patterns anyone can adopt to communicate more effectively. He notes that these magic words and phrases are already used by people everyday, albeit in a haphazard or unconscious fashion. It is the deliberate and intentional use of certain speech patterns that gives them their power.


(Photo by SFDenverLV)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Up and Away

"Up and Away" are the magic words of Emelyan, a Fool in Russian fairy tales.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Single Shocking Word

"Doctor Dee would sometimes think: All creation is a huge, ornate, imaginary, and unintended fiction; if it could be deciphered it would yield a single shocking word." —John Crowley, The Solitudes

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


"Pidiboff": a magic word from Manduck the Magician. (See fuller context here.)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Words of Transformation

"In the end, we may be in love with books, but it’s words that have truly won our hearts. It’s words that whisper into our ear and transform us, that make us believe in other worlds or new emotions we didn’t know existed; it’s words that keep us company in . . . planes, on subway trains, or our comfy couches. It is words, not books, paper, papyrus or vellum pages that transform our lives."

—Jeff Gomez, Print is Dead; Books in Our Digital Age, 2008. Via dj misc.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Don't You Believe?

"Magic," she said. "Don't you believe in magic?"
He inhaled tobacco smoke, and breathed it out in mystic calm.
"No," he said.
"But you think it works."
He said nothing.
-- John Crowley, Love & Sleep

[Woodcut of astrologer by Jorg Breu.]

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

'Twixt Six O'Clock and Now

"My brave spirit," said Prospero—that was the magician's name—"this time, 'twixt six o'clock and now, must be spent by us both most preciously."
—Mary Maud, Shakespeare's Stories

(Photo by ian.crowther)

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Euphemisms are Anti-Magic Words

Our use of euphemisms is proof of a deep-seated belief in the magic of words. Steven Pinker explains:

"Taboo speech is part of a larger phenomenon known as word magic. Though one of the foundations of linguistics is that the pairing between a sound and a meaning is arbitrary, most humans intuitively believe otherwise. They treat the name for an entity as part of its essence, so that the mere act of uttering a name is seen as a way to impinge on its referent. Incantations, spells, prayers, and curses are ways that people try to affect the world through words, and taboos and euphemisms are ways that people try not to affect it." (The Stuff of Thought, p. 331)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Left-Handed Magic Word

Magician and tech wizard Gordon Meyer shares the fact that abracadabra is "one of the few 'one-handed passwords' that technologists such as myself collect. That is, it can be typed entirely with the left hand on a qwerty keyboard."


Speaking of abracadabra, don't miss our article "The Abracadabra of Faery" in the Aug. 2009 issue of Witches & Pagans magazine. Here's the introduction:

Delving through dusty old tomes in search of ancient expressions of enchantment, I noticed that one command in particular seemed to trace directly back to Faery. I was searching for subtle, mysterious, transformative words, whose vibrations seemed to transcend the laws of physics. One such mystical word proved time and time again to be the name of a great lady Faery. Small wonder that her name has endured as the best-known and best-loved magic word in recorded history.

Her name is that spine-tingling thing that gives you goose bumps. It’s the instant of a wish coming true. It’s opening your eyes and seeing that the workaday world has transformed into something holy. It’s that moment of clarity when everything suddenly “clicks,” and you see that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. These clicks and ticks can trigger a resounding chime, signaling the fullness of time. And yet it is that very same chime of the clock that can disintegrate a dream. Energy builds and builds to a breaking point. Then it diminishes. This is the cosmic process of creation and destruction, of waxing and waning, reflected by great Faery name Abracadabra. The Lady Abracadabra’s name is pure dazzle, and it has never lost its spark over the centuries. Nor has it lost connection to its Faery roots, even in “generic” form — in 1933, Neil Bell referred to “an invocation as remote from reality as the abracadabra of faery.”

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Cloud Dispelling

This passage reminded us of Kenton Knepper's delightful instruction on cloud busting in his Wonder Words program:

"Sorcerers, being lords of weather and wind, are called 'cloud-dispellers' (oblako-progonniki) and 'cloud-preservers' (oblako-chraniteliniki). For a sorcerer, therefore, invested with such power, it was a simple matter, by means of a magic word, to make the wind veer in any desired direction, to throw dust into the air, and cause the wind to carry dust to any person he chose, so that the victim 'might become crooked, wrinkled, be blown asunder and desiccated." —James Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics Part 6, 1908, p. 466