Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Monday, December 27, 2010
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Sunday, December 19, 2010
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
"There is here a sort of magic password, as though all the powers of grace and splendour that nature holds concealed had united to give at the same moment, to a spectator unknown to men, one great, decisive proof of the blessings and the glories of the earth. There is here a sort of unparalleled expectation ...; an ecstatic silence which demands a supernatural presence." —Maurice Maeterlinck, Mountain Paths (1919)
Can you guess the landscape in question?
Answer: The "gardens and valleys of the Provençal coast during the six or seven weeks when departing spring still mingles its verdure with the first warmth of advancing summer. ... Here, amid this desert, this silence, this emptiness, from the vine-arbours to the terraces and from the terraces to the porches of a thousand abandoned villas, reigns a rivalry of beauty which reaches a poignant agony of intensity, exhausting every energy, form and colour." (The answer is in black text on the black background. Highlight it to view.)
Sunday, December 12, 2010
Friday, December 10, 2010
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Sunday, December 5, 2010
Friday, December 3, 2010
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
We're delighted to be twice-referenced in Varla Ventura's Beyond Bizarre, an entertaining collection of stranger-than-fiction stories and trivia. In the chapter on famous magicians, hoaxes, and feats of human endurance, see our explanation of why "open sesame" is the most straightforward magical key.
Monday, November 29, 2010
Thursday, November 25, 2010
Words, my friends, have power. The immediate success or failure of a book depends on many factors – timing and circumstance not least among them. But ultimately, an individual book lives or dies by the power of its content – words, ideas, the beauty of language.One of the entries in our Magic Words: A Dictionary pops up:
“Just say the magic word: Oprah” – Vince Vittore, America’s Network (Jan. 1, 1995)
Origins: This is the given name of the successful talk-show host and media mogul Oprah Winfrey. The word is of Hebrew origin.
- “She who turns her back” – Adrian Room, Cassel’s Dictionary of First Names (2002)
Monday, November 22, 2010
Saturday, November 20, 2010
We contributed an article in the December issue of MAGIC magazine about our favorite magical gathering. Here's a snippet:
There are No S's in "Magic & Meaning"
What's the secret for keeping a magic conference from turning into a "vicious circle"? For host Jeff McBride, it's uncoiling that circle into a spiral, with a fixed starting point but enough momentum to spring. McBride's unwound magic circle, known as Magic & Meaning, is an innovative, annual conference held over four days in Las Vegas. McBride gathers a band of prominent thinkers, theorists, and philosophers of the art to spark insights for magicians from around the world. Attendees have only one thing in common: a quest to unravel the secrets of wonderment.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Monday, November 15, 2010
Saturday, November 13, 2010
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
Saturday, November 6, 2010
Abba Zabba is also the name of an old-fashioned peanut butter taffy candy bar.
Friday, November 5, 2010
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Saturday, October 30, 2010
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
"You turn his face eastward and you whisper into his ear, three times, the words: 'Nicander, Melchior, and Merchizard.'" —Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
Nicander is the name of an Egyptian saint. Melchior is the name of one of the Three Magi. Merchizard remains a mystery.
Sunday, October 24, 2010
Thursday, October 21, 2010
Slowly, as if an invisible hand were writing 'Mane, Tekel, Peres,' I saw some marks emerge one by one on the white side of the sheet as William moved the the lamp, and as the smoke that rose from the top of the flame blackened the recto; the marks did not resemble those of any alphabet, except that of necromancers. —Umberto Eco, The Name of the RoseMane, Tekel, Peres can be translated as "numbered; reckoned up; carried away."
Monday, October 18, 2010
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Saturday, October 9, 2010
You wiggle your fingers and—eureka!That sudden, impassioned sound of accomplishment, eureka, is “a word of magic . . . a dot of light on a night as black as pitch” (Terry Kay, The Valley of Light, 2003). It marks the special moment when a spark of inspiration seems to come out of nowhere. “Eureka, or should I say abracadabra. I’ve found the magic” (Eddie Segrum, “Segrum Secret,” 2004). Eureka is a Greek word, famously associated with the great mathematician Archimedes.
—Irv Furman, Amazing Irv’s Handbook of Everyday Magic (2002)
“[L]ooking at the symbols in your dreams can suddenly give you a Eureka! moment.” —Ariana, House Magic (2001)• Bingo!
—Bruce Coville, Aliens Ate My Homework (1993)• Breakthrough
—David Wolfe, Puzzlers’ Tribute (2001)• I found it!
—Edward Eager, Magic by the Lake (1957)• I’ve got it!
—Sig Lonegren, The Pendulum Kit (1990)• Realization, insight, illumination, epiphany
—L. Michael Hall, User’s Manual for the Brain, Vol. II (2003)• This is it!
—Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (2003)
—Brian Jacques, Redwall (2002)
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
Sunday, October 3, 2010
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Sunday, September 26, 2010
Thursday, September 23, 2010
Monday, September 20, 2010
Friday, September 17, 2010
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Saturday, September 11, 2010
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Sunday, September 5, 2010
Thursday, September 2, 2010
avolate, baccivorous, benzoin, cacodoxy, cerastes, crubble, dogmatics, glaver, grangerism, inadequation, lordkin, mulct, pasigraphy, postern, pulicious, sparble, speight, vespillo, Adrastus, Allobroges, Assur-Bani-Pal, Dongola, Kafiristan, Philopator, Richerus ...(The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, p. 111-112)
Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Sunday, August 29, 2010
—Canadian Alpine Journal
Thursday, August 26, 2010
Monday, August 23, 2010
When Andrew Lovatt kindly praised us for "bringing the excitement and the hunt and mystery back into lexicogaphy," we realized that he had identified the patron saint of our magical dictionary: Artemis, the Roman goddess of the hunt. Thanks, Andrew!
Friday, August 20, 2010
"There is something about the wild strawberries which draws me like a magic spell. There is magic is the French cast of their name [fraises des bois]: strawberries of the woods. There is the magic of memory, the recollection of afternoons when I plucked and ate them."
—"The Point of View," Scribner's Magazine, Volume 67, p. 761
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
—Amy Wygant, The Meanings of Magic (2006)
Saturday, August 14, 2010
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Sunday, August 8, 2010
Thursday, August 5, 2010
Monday, August 2, 2010
“[Treasure] is a magic word, conjuring ‘riches beyond measure,’ troves of wealth, chests of gold coins, hoards of precious stones, jewel-encrusted reliquaries, crowns and crucifixes, sovereigns and states, pirates and plunder. The word arrived on the shores of the islands of New Zealand in 1840 with centuries of English history behind it and millennia of Mediterranean history behind that.” —Malcom McKinnon, A History of the New Zealand Treasury (2003)
“During a conversation over several rounds of iced rum, Caesar spoke the magic word that has fired the human mind into insanity for five thousand years and probably caused more grief than half the wars: treasure.” —Clive Cussler, Cyclops (1986)
“‘It’s as if—as if the key to the treasure is the treasure!’ As soon as she spoke these last words, a genie appeared from nowhere right there in our library-stacks.” —John Barth, Chimera (1972)
Friday, July 30, 2010
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
“‘A friend?’ Ashtaroth swung back his left hand and shot it forward in a wicked pitch that sent a stream of fiery energy crashing into the statue. ‘Aemaer! Friend you are and friend you shall be, emblazoned now for all to see!’ As the arcane smoke cleared, Loew edged in to examine the demon’s handiwork. The golem leaned back against its dolly, as impassive as before, but there was a change. Carved into its wide flat forehead were the letters f-r-i-e-n-d.” —Deborah Van Fossen, “Gone with the Golem” (2006)
“I don’t know why, but I took an eyeliner pencil, and I wrote the word ‘Aemaer’ on his forehead. I meant it only as a last gesture—my own goodbye. I knew the word from my Pop Pop’s books, a magic word meant to give life, to grant protection. I in no way imagined that it would act as anything more than a symbol—a mark of forgiveness that would fade away all too quickly as I stuffed John’s body into the crematorium oven.” —Christopher Michael Davis, “Cosmetics,” Little Knives: Twelve Tales of Horror and the Supernatural (2004)
Origins: Kabbalic lore. Aemaer is likely a variation of Aemaet.
Saturday, July 24, 2010
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Origins: Devotion is from the Latin devotio, meaning “zeal.”
Devotion—a sound, a wondrous word,
Fragrant with love and holy silence;
A magic word, whose beauty is enough
To convince us of the power of Truth.
Monday, July 19, 2010
Saturday, July 17, 2010
A variation from the same series: "Night into day and day into night; back to the past with the speed of light."
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Just pronounce the magic word ‘Art’, and everything is O.K.
—George Orwell, “Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali,” Fifty Orwell Essays (1944)
See also this previous post about the magic word art.
Monday, July 12, 2010
Saturday, July 10, 2010
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Club in a sack recalls the fertility rites associated with early magic, the club symbolizing the male reproductive organ, the sack symbolizing the womb, and the two joined in sacred union.
Sunday, July 4, 2010
“‘Why not?’ he asked. ‘Why not, by Jingo?’” —T.H. White, The Once and Future King (1939)
Variations and Incantations:
“[H]e whistled the ballad ‘Oh, by gee, by gosh, by jingo’ as though it were a hymn melancholy and noble.” —Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt (1921)
—e.e. cummings, “next to of course god america i” (1926)
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1903)
—Michael Connelly, The Closers (2005)
Friday, July 2, 2010
Thursday, July 1, 2010
Zara, enchanted by your powerful magic.
—John Lord Campbell, The Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers of the Great Seal of England Vol. 4 (1851)
Mystique: Zara recalls Zarathustra (also known as Zoroaster), the ancient Persian prophet.
Meanings: The root of Zara is zar, meaning “gold.”
Origins: Zara is of Persian origin.
—Tony Abbott, The Knights of Silversnow (2002)
Monday, June 28, 2010
My wand of hocus-pocus.
—Dennis Miller, The Rant Zone (2001)
The word locus means “place,” so locus-pocus conjures a place where magic happens.
This phrase is a variation of the magic phrase hocus pocus.
Saturday, June 26, 2010
Friday, June 25, 2010
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Sunday, June 20, 2010
Saturday, June 19, 2010
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Sunday, June 13, 2010
Friday, June 11, 2010
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Monday, June 7, 2010
Sunday, June 6, 2010
Saturday, June 5, 2010
Annemann calls Houdini "the world's best recognized mysticist since Moses threw down his staff and caused it to appear as a snake."
Thursday, June 3, 2010
In the television series Isis (1977), the heroine is a high school teacher who discovered an ancient Egyptian amulet during an archaeological dig. By intoning the magic phrase “Oh mighty Isis!” she transforms into a superhero with the strengths and abilities of her Egyptian goddess patroness.
Tuesday, June 1, 2010
Saturday, May 29, 2010
Thursday, May 27, 2010
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Sunday, May 23, 2010
Saturday, May 22, 2010
Friday, May 21, 2010
Meanings: The “eleventh hour” is a figure of speech referring to a decisive moment at hand.
Origins: Aalacho is a name that appears in the Lemegeton Clavicula Salomonis or The Lesser Key of Solomon (17th century). It means the eleventh hour of the night.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
First gather a list of titles - which are really shorthand themes. Then you have to establish a wee magnetic field - in this way. You switch on the drum machine and find a jerky old pattern that the rhythm of the words can adhere to in some way. Then you switch on the synth and find a three or four note melody that seems to have some appropriate resonance with the title.(Full interview at Electronically Yours, posted 17 May 2010)
This is the main theme - I always see it as a sort of mysterious cinematic intro.
If all the foregoing meshes well enough, it will exert a magnetic attraction for other phrases - so, gradually you accumulate the nucleus of a song. Then you can begin to arrange it all.
Once you establish a main theme, the whole thing runs like a movie. In come the characters, they interact in some way and something is thereby revealed which is unexpected and rewarding and you hope has some universal emotional resonance.
Then circumstances are resolved - or not, and we go out on the main theme again. If you do this well enough, you now have a small universe with its own internal logic that you can adjust delicately over the rest of your life.
Monday, May 17, 2010
I have discovered that there is a way to escape this grim fate—the misfortune of joke dharma. The solution, I believe, is that I should assume, myself, the responsibility of telling the very jokes which constrain and define me, and to make, each time, a small alteration in their telling, an alteration which restores a few shreds of dignity, human decency, beauty and sensuality to the tale.
It might begin by embroidery; I add a few details which are not normally included in the rush to the punchline. I must ensure that the story is so well-told that my audience loses interest in the farcical pay-off, the money-shot. I tell the tale several times, from different angles and with different emphases, forcing my listeners to pay attention to small formal questions, adverbs rather than verbs, hows rather than whats.
By these methods, little by little, I believe I can improve my world. Even if you are not in the same grim situation as me, you might want to try this technique for yourself. (51-52)
[Note: your eccentric scholar appreciates Lee Silvan's point but can't personally share in the magic of the word "prom." Having dropped out of high school two years early to attend college—not to mention being a confirmed recluse—the word "prom" mostly just reminds us of "pram," a British baby carriage.]
Saturday, May 15, 2010
Thursday, May 13, 2010
—Dugald Steer, The Dragon Diary, 2009
In this story, the magic name in question is "Aladdin."
Monday, May 10, 2010
Friday, May 7, 2010
Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Saturday, May 1, 2010
—Robert Anton Wilson, Cosmic Trigger II
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Saturday, April 24, 2010
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
—Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science
Monday, April 19, 2010
"As much as the book is listed as 'a dictionary', it is more of type of a book that you would sit down and read for pleasure, not necessarily to be used as a reference book that sits on a shelf and used only when needed."
Sunday, April 18, 2010
—Robert Anton Wilson, Decadance
Thursday, April 15, 2010
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Thursday, April 8, 2010
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
Monday, April 5, 2010
Friday, April 2, 2010
—Charles Fort, Lo!
Thursday, April 1, 2010
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Monday, March 29, 2010
Friday, March 26, 2010
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Sunday, March 21, 2010
Thursday, March 18, 2010
Monday, March 15, 2010
—Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game, translated by Richard and Clara Winston
Friday, March 12, 2010
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Magic is a psychological force – a means to understand our position in nature. Although some might argue that magic has been wiped from contemporary culture, it has never actually disappeared from our psyche. Simple acts, such as writing your name on a wall are in fact magical. To some this is a simple act of vandalism, but that is not the real motivation for people to do this.See his full discussion here.
Writing your name on a wall makes the wall becomes an extension of yourself and you become part of the wall. It is a way to exert our self onto the world. This is I think the deeper psychological reason for the popularity of tagging. Tagging is a way to impart part of your self onto the environment in which you live. This is in essence an act of magic because it is a way to connect the inner world (psychology) with physical reality. There is no rational reason to write your name on a wall.
Saturday, March 6, 2010
Friday, March 5, 2010
"In Hindu magic prana is the energy source for all magical feats. Magicians use prana to energize the imagination and will, which are the keys to the Creative Mind Principle, the controlling instrument of genuine magic." —Rosemary Guiley, Harper's Encyclopedia of Mystical & Paranormal Experience, 1991, p. 627
(Dedicated to Fred.)
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
We just discovered (with help from Gordon) that a Mac app called Presto contains a passage from our Magic Words: A Dictionary. Presto is a utility for quickly pasting in commonly used snippets of text, and the magic word "presto" is the default example. So when one types "presto" into any application, a passage from our dictionary appears, like magic!
Monday, March 1, 2010
Sunday, February 28, 2010
He gave us story-oceans and abracadabras.
—Salman Rushdie, The Moor’s Last Sigh (1997)
It’s that spine-tingling thing that gives you goose bumps.[i] 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.[ii] 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 (“At the stroke of midnight, you know, abracadabra.”[iii]) Energy builds and builds to a breaking point: “Abracadabra. Something flipped in my head.”[iv] Then it diminishes. This is the cosmic process of creation and destruction, of waxing and waning, reflected by abracadabra.
“The link between language and ritual reaches far back into the origin of human culture when certain words were felt to have awesome magical powers. That same feeling of awe is still manifest in children’s eyes when they listen to a magician’s abracadabra.”[v] Arguably the best-known and best-loved magic word in history, abracadabra is pure dazzle, and it has never lost its spark over the centuries. “When a magician says the word ‘abracadabra,’ wonderful things happen. A rabbit hops out of a hat, the ace floats to the top of the deck, and the comely young assistant vanishes in a puff of smoke.”[vi] Though some magicians now consider it a cliché due to its sheer ubiquity, abracadabra remains the word associated with conjuring[vii], and such is its power that it is virtually impossible to speak the syllables without some vestige of reverence or at least respect. “‘Magic words,’ be they as commonly known as Abracadabra, or as deeply secret as the Unknowable Name of God, have always carried great power.”[viii] As novelist Terry Kay points out, “Illusions [are] made of words, like a magician’s singsong of abracadabra secrets.”[ix]
We’ll likely never know who first coined or uttered the word abracadabra, but it was passed along to us by way of the ancient Jewish mystics and was no doubt antiquated even in their time. Sustained over generations by its undeniable profundity, today the word pops up virtually any time someone wants to describe a magical moment in life. It’s so versatile that it appears as every part of speech, from noun to adjective to verb, and it is instantly poetic: “[D]ewdrops perched on tall blades of grass became small prisms in the abracadabra light of sunrise,” writes poet Diane Ackerman.[x] Indeed, abracadabra captures that wavelength of light that scintillates and makes rainbows. It’s also the mystery of shadows, as poet Barbara Smith describes:
[W]ait while darkness
pronounces its abracadabra,
and the moon rises
from the tips of trees.”[xi]
It’s a building block, a blueprint: “I was getting back to simple abracadabra,” writes novelist Henry Miller, “the straw that makes bricks, the crude sketch, the temple which must take on flesh and blood and make itself manifest to all the world.”[xii]
It is said that when abracadabra was originally chanted, it was reduced letter by letter until only the final “A” remained.[xiii] Likewise, it was written on paper as in the figure below. Such a notation signified a totality gradually shrinking away to nothing.[xiv] Similar to sawing a lady in half, “Dismemberment of language produces enigma; but at the same time a performative act is being brought about. Language is simultaneously ruined and employed.”[xv]
For all its syllables, abracadabra is one of those “one-piece words” that “seem complete in themselves.”[xvi] Not easily divided into smaller linguistic pieces (morphemes), abracadabra has a dynamism to it, something that carries the speaker smoothly through the syllables. It’s like a handful of other long yet unified words that roll off the tongue: didgeridoo, mulligatawny, millennium, rhododendron.[xvii] It’s as if there’s a sonic “glue” holding the syllables together, and that gives the word strength.
The virtues of Abracadabra are well known; though the meaning of the word has puzzled some of the best critics of the last age.
—Tobias Smollett, The Adventures of an Atom (1748)
• A (the letter)
“By the father of physic, thought I, this study of medicine is not the pleasant task I anticipated—rather arduous in the long run for the stomach, I should judge, to swallow and digest all the medicines, from Abracadabra to Zinzibar.” —Henry Clay Lewis, The Swamp Doctor’s Adventures (1858)
“‘Abra cadabra,’ that famous saying that everyone learned, is actually a very good ancient magical formula. It just takes the alphabet, supplies some extra vowel sounds, and you turn it into a very spooky sounding word, at least from a Greek perspective.” —L. Michael White, “Magic, Miracles, and the Gospel” (1998)
• Antiquated knowledge or wisdom
“On the blackboard the futile abracadabra which the future citizens of the republic would have to spend their lives forgetting.” —Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer (1961)
• Assyrian deity
“Today we know that Abracadabra was the supreme deity of the Assyrians.” —H.E. Dudeney, The Canterbury Puzzles (1907)
• Changing or transforming; the cause of change
“[S]ort out the jigsaw pieces of problems, then abracadabra them into brilliant solutions.” —Linda Goodman, Linda Goodman’s Star Signs (1988)
“His voice was quiet, like a hypnotist’s: ‘Everything in my life changes now.’ Abracadabra. Madeline silently repeated his incantation, also wishing that everything in his life would change for him.” —Valerie Ann Leff, Better Homes and Husbands (2004)
“There was magic in sketching. She heard Joel at the door, turned around, and said, Abracadabra, I create as I sketch.” —Pearl Abraham, The Seventh Beggar (2005)
• Cryptic language
“[T]he facts tumbling out of the coding machines in Navy abracadabra.” —Herman Wouk, War and Remembrance (2002)
“He saw—waking or dream, he still couldn’t say—a ghost mumbling all sorts of Biblical abracadabra in a dead tongue, Chaldean perhaps or Hittite.” —Amos Oz, A Perfect Peace (1993)
• Devil’s name
“‘There, you see? The devil’s name, Abracadabra!’ He frowned for a few seconds. ‘The writer claims Abracadabra can be raised to this world by invoking his name above the Grail.’” —Bernard Cornwell, Vagabond (2003)
“Right now, unnoticed by the pilot of the big plane, Allard’s hand was building a complicated pyramid of letters that looked like a mystic abracadabra. Zigzagging lines between those letters, he gave potential meanings to dots and dashes in the body of Zanigew’s message.” —Maxwell Grant, Shadow Over Alcatraz (1938)
• Diminishing, causing to disappear
—Laura Lippman, By A Spider’s Thread (2004)
“[R]oughly translated from a Chaldean word [abracadabra] means ‘to diminish.’” —Patricia Telesco, How to be a Wicked Witch (2001)
• Divine utterance
“[A] puff of smoke and a holy abracadabra.” —Lisa Samson, The Church Ladies (2001)
• Exotic, otherworldly
“[H]e longed to clear a way for himself into unknown territories, the abracadabra realms we feel inside which nobody dares to touch.” —David Grossman, See Under: LOVE (2002)
“Unaware of their cage unless they try to leave it, the objects seem to float in the abracadabra realm of flying carpets.” —Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (1990)
“The effect [of James Joyce’s literary methods] at times is astounding, but the price paid is the entire dissolution of the very foundation of literary diction, the entire decomposition of literary method itself; for the lay reader the text has been turned into abracadabra.” —Sergei Eisenstein, Film Forum: Essays in Film Theory (1969)
“If the encryption only yields abracadabra, something along the transmission path has gone wrong . . . The difference between messages that make sense and abracadabra might be subjective.” —M.H.M. Schellekens, Electronic Signatures Volume 5 (2004)
• “Hippie-dippy airy-fairy baloney”
—Michael Crichton, Travels (1988)
• “Host of the winged ones” (i.e., angels)
This is an interpretation of the word Abrakad, from a prayer attributed to Rabbi Nehunya ban harKanah (Philip Schaff, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. I).
• “I bless the dead”
—A Dictionary of Angels (1997)
“[N]o abracadabra insights, just plain old hard work.” —Joseph J. Luciani, Self-Coaching: How to Heal Anxiety and Depression (2001)
“We’ll have you some heat in here before you can say abracadabra, and you can put your money on it.” —Mark Edward Hall, Holocaust Opera (2004)
“Reality is like a magic act, and magic by definition contradicts what we expected. But life’s magic acts don’t always have us applauding. Before you can say ‘abracadabra’ many of us discover we’re the dumb bunnies pulled from a top hat and blinking blindly into the lights only to again disappear as wondrously as we first appeared. We are no sooner here than we disappear.” —Noah benShea, “Life is a Contradiction in Terms: (2003)
• Key to unlock or open
“Tibetans have been reported to lift stones through the use of certain combinations of sound frequencies. Perhaps the Arab word ‘Abracadabra’ pronounced correctly really did cause something to open.” —Paul Von Ward, Gods, Genes, and Consciousness (2004)
“Abracadabra, a door opened and there was Claudia.” —Kathy Kaehler, Kathy Kaehler’s Celebrity Workouts (2004)
“He thought ‘CIA’ was a kind of abracadabra that would magically open all the important doors in Washington.” —Robert Baer, See No Evil (2003)
“The safe hummed once, then clicked. ‘Abracadabra,’ Roarke stated, and opened it.” —J.D. Robb, Purity in Death (2002)
“No amount of intellectual authority, arrogant confidence, name dropping, or ego and ambition pounding on the door demanding to be admitted will allow us passage. Beyond a certain point, faith is the magic lamp and humility the abracadabra.” —Gregg Michael Levoy, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life (1998)
• Keyword or buzzword
“The abracadabras of a champion job search.” —Jay A. Block, 2500 Keywords to Get You Hired (2002)
“He was certain that if he sailed a hundred years on the Caine he would understand such abracadabra no better than he did at that moment.” —Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny (1951)
“[T]he abracadabra of the philosophers.” —Christa Wolf and Jan Van Heurch, Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays (1988)
“Change is magical, like . . . Abracadabra.” —Angeles Arrien, The Tarot Handbook: Practical Applications of Ancient Visual Symbols (1997)
“There were abracadabra spells for protection on journeys.” —Paul M. Johnson, A History of the Jews (1988)
“[T]here’s no abracadabra magic involved in change.” —Joseph P. Luciani, The Power of Self-Coaching (2004)
“Lacking an abracadabra wand, you’re stuck with people.” —Rose Rosetree, The Power of Face Reading (2001)
“[I]t worked like abracadabra.” —Lynn Hightower, The Debt Collector (2001)
“One word from me and, abracadabra!, reality was transformed.” —Eva Luna, quoted in Conversations with Isabel Allende by Isabel Allende (1999)
“That mausoleum right there [is] the permanent home of the Great Abra Cadabra—one of the greatest magicians that ever lived.” —Deborah Gregory, The Cheetah Girls: Growl Power (2000)
• Magic word
“I can’t touch it without an abracadabra either from her or from Grandpappy.” —Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love (1973)
“[T]he right abracadabra to select the winning lottery number . . .” —Stephen Jay Gould, I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History (2003)
“[T]he appropriate abracadabra may be . . .” —Andrew Tobias, Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds (1995)
“[H]oping to acquire an abracadabra or open sesame . . .” —Helen Valentine, Better Than Beauty: A Guide to Charm (2002)
“The magician says ‘Abracadabra,’ and the genie comes out of the bottle.” —Charles Hartshome, Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (1984)
“[B]reathe in—abra, breathe out—cadabra, abra, cadabra. If you can do this successfully in a quiet place, with near total relaxation, you will achieve a particularly satisfying state of mind. Some would call it a religious experience.” —Bill Greene, Think Like a Tycoon (1980)
“The word good, when applied to [God], becomes meaningless: like abracadabra.” —C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (1961)
• Moment in time
“The cooking of the dish is nearly as quick as abracadabra.” —Pierre Franey, The New York Times 60-Minute Gourmet (2000)
“She’d have me in a cell before I could say abracadabra.” —Jim Butcher, Fool Moon (2001)
“Before one could say abracadabra, they had moved to a corner of the lawn . . .” —James Duffy, Dog Bites Man: City Shocked (2001)
“[W]ith an abracadabra tone in his voice . . .” —Stuart Ewen, PR! (1998)
—Richard Cavendish, The Black Arts (1968)
“Mumbo jumbo and abracadabra, all of it.” —Lesley Blanch, The Wilder Shores of Love: The Exotic True-Life Stories of Isabel Burton, Aimee Dubucq de Rivery, Jane Digby, and Isabelle Eberhardt (2002)
“I was growing stupid listening to nothing but statistical abracadabra.” —Henry Miller, Plexus (1963)
“By the time Lucien, hunted down and on the run, had brought himself to read this abracadabra, he had received notice that a judgment had been obtained against him.” —Honoré de Balzac, Lost Illusions, translated by Kathleen Raine (1951)
“Music is planetary fire, an irreducible which is all sufficient; it is the slate-writing of the gods, the abracadabra which the learned and the ignorant alike muff because the axel has been unhooked.” —Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (1961)
• Mystic importance
Judge Benjamin Kaplan wrote of the “oddity of accepting . . . an enlargement of copyright while yet intoning the abracadabra of idea and expression” (quoted in Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity by Lawrence Lessig ).
“The costuming, pageantry, and general abracadabra had attracted him to the Masonic ritual in the first place, just as the theatricalism of the conjurer’s art had lured him to the money-digging of his youth.” —Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith (1995)
• Nonsensical babble
“The Egyptologists make nothing out of it but abracadabra.” —Patrick Geryl, The Orion Prophecy: Will the World Be Destroyed in 2012 (2002)
“[U]nintelligible ‘abracadabras.’” —John R. Donahue, The Gospel of Mark (2002)
• Out of the blue
—Tom Spanbauer, In the City of Shy Hunters (2001)
“‘Abracadabra, great Siva,’ prayed Gottfried.” —Erich Maria Remarque, Three Comrades (1998)
• Ritualistic utterance
“Ritualistic utterances . . . whether made up of words that had symbolic significance at other times, of words in foreign or obsolete tongues, or of meaningless syllables, may be regarded as consisting in large part of presymbolic uses of language: that is, accustomed sets of noises which convey no information, but to which feelings . . . are attached. Such utterances rarely make sense to anyone not a member of the group. The abracadabra of a lodge meeting is absurd to anyone not a member of the lodge. When language becomes ritual, its effect becomes, to a considerable extent, independent of whatever signification the words once possessed.” —S.I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action: Fifth Edition (1991)
“[A]ll they really wanted was to do the abracadabra and get the hell out.” —Yvonne Navarro, Shattered Twilight (2004)
“[H]e practiced the abracadabra of calling dogs.” —Beryl Markham, West with the Night (1982)
• Spiritual connection
“If you make abracadabra with spirits you can get money from them.” —Wole Soyinka, The Road (1965)
—Susan Albers, Eating Mindfully (2003)
“The United States retains, unusually for an advanced industrial society, about the same per capita level of religious superstition as Bangladesh. What one of Jimmy Carter’s aides once referred to as the ‘abracadabra vote’ is ample.” —Francis Wheen, Idiot Proof: Deluded Celebrities, Irrational Power Brokers, Media Morons, and the Erosion of Common Sense (2004)
“The next morning a sorcerer’s talisman in the form of a small, oddly shaped shell filled with evil smelling ashes and bound with dried sinews was found tied to his door. Well aware that the eyes of the entire village were watching his every action, he took the token and with a great show of contempt tied it to the tail of a large hog. All that day the swine snouted and grubbed for food in the usual noisy way of such an animal, quite unaware of the abracadabra at its rump but in the evening it died.” —John Farrow, Damien the Leper (1954)
“You belong in any position or career that allows you to sort out the jigsaw pieces of problems, then abracadabra them into brilliant solutions—and permits you to play marbles with jelly beans on your lunch break.” —Linda Goodman, Linda Goodman’s Star Signs (1987)
• Unity, totality
“All is one! Life is a unity! Abracadabra!” —Bruce Duffy, The World As I Found It (1987)
“It sounds like we need some kind of ancient word of wisdom?” “Abracadabra?” Teabing ventured, his eyes twinkling.
—Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code (2003)
Because abracadabra has been adopted in so many languages without translation, there is speculation that it predates the Biblical story of the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel.[xviii] In spite of exhaustive inquiry, “the origin of Abracadabra is unknown, and most of the attempts made to translate or explain it are not impressive.”[xix] Some scholars have suggested that the word originated with the Chaldeans of the old Babylonian period.[xx] The so-called “Abracadabra texts” of Babylonia contain mysterious incantations, some derived from other languages such as Old Elamite and subsequently incomprehensible.[xxi]
Frequently cited as a possible source is the name Abraxis, the supreme being in Gnosticism, “the source of divine emanations from which all things were created.”[xxii] Stones inscribed with abracadabra are called “abraxis stones.”[xxiii] One scholar of Greek Qabalah, Kieren Barry, suggests that abracadabra is derived from the word Akrankanarba from Greek magical papyri dating from the second century BCE to the fifth century CE.[xxiv] Other scholars claim the word is a corruption of the name Abu Abdullah abu Jafar Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, a ninth century Arabian mathematician who pioneered algebraic formulae.[xxv]
In 1822, Samson Arnold Mackey suggested that abracadabra is actually a sentence formulated by ancient astronomers to describe the constellation of the bull, meaning literally “the Bull, the only Bull”: “The ancient sentence split into its component parts stands thus: Ab’r-achad-ab’ra, i.e., Ab’r, the Bull; achad, the only—Achad is one of the names of the Sun, given him in consequence of his Shining alone,—and he is the only Star to be seen when he is seen—the remaining ab’ra, makes the whole to be, The Bull, the only Bull.”[xxvi]
More popularly, abracadabra is associated with a Hebrew-Aramaic expression, variously transliterated: ibra k’dibra (“I create through my speech”[xxvii]), abhadda kedkabhra (“disappear like this word”[xxviii]), Abra kadavra (“I will create with words”[xxix]), ha brachah dabarah (“speak the blessing”[xxx]), abreq ad habra (“hurl your thunderbolt even unto death”[xxxi]), abraq ad habra (“I will create as I speak”[xxxii]), Avra c’dabrah (“it came to pass as it was spoken”[xxxiii]), and Ab, Ben, Ruch a cadasch (the words for father, son, and holy spirit[xxxiv]). Scholar William Isaacs explains it this way: “Abra comes from the Aramaic verb bra meaning to create. Ca translates to ‘as.’ Dabra is the first person of the verb daber, ‘to speak.’ In other words, abracadabra literally means ‘I create as I speak.’ Magic!”[xxxv]
Ultimately, the meaning of abracadabra doesn’t matter: “The true magic ‘word’ or spell is untranslatable, because its power resides only partially in that outward sense which is apprehended by the reason, but chiefly in the rhythm, which is addressed to the subliminal mind.”[xxxvi]
Facts: Scholar Joshua Trachtenberg notes that certain words take on occult virtues through the tradition that has developed around them “or because of their fancied descent from potent charms of ancient times or foreign peoples.” He notes that magic is the most conservative of disciplines: “like the law it clings to archaic forms long after they have lost currency.” (Many prominent figures in professional magic are certainly wary of what they consider old clichés, like the icons of the tuxedo, top hat, white rabbit, and words like ‘abracadabra,’ urging their fellow performers to adopt styles more current with the times.) But Trachtenberg points out that magic’s conservatism “is not inspired by intellectual inertia. The very nature of magic demands a strict adherence to the original form of the magical name or word, for its potency lies hidden within its syllables, within its very consonants and vowels—the slightest alteration may empty the word of all its magic content.” Naturally, words undergo changes over time, transmitted as they are through inaudible whispers or all-too-fallible scribes, and eventually they become so corrupted as to be “altogether exotic and meaningless,” offering few if any clues to their original sense and tongue, and essentially “unintelligible to the heirs of the tradition.” Ironically, a mystery offers its own a kind of potency, and magic words came to be considered efficacious to the degree that they were strange and incomprehensible: “Rashi, in the eleventh century, proved his familiarity with this phenomenon when he wrote: ‘The sorcerer whispers his charms, and doesn’t understand what they are or what they mean, but . . . the desired effect is produced only by such incantations.’” Trachtenberg notes that the Cherokee medicine men, aborigines in India, and Tibetan and Chinese Buddhists all hold in high regard archaic, unintelligible expressions “that have conveyed no meaning for centuries,” considering them “more potent than their own. The ‘abracadabra’ of the modern stage magician reflects a phenomenon familiar to us all.”[xxxvii]
A very early written record of abracadabra dates back to 208 CE, as “part of a folkloric cure for a fever.”[xxxviii] The record is actually an incomplete poem on medicine by the Roman doctor Serenus Quintus Sammonicus, “containing curious lore, ancient remedies, and magical formulae—such as the Abracadabra charm—and was much used in the Middle Ages.”[xxxix]
Abracadabra was commonly used as a conjuring word by the Middle Ages.[xl]
As a talisman against disease, abracadabra was inscribed on parchment and worn around the neck.[xli] In the late 1600s, John Aubrey transcribed instructions for creating such a charm in Miscellanies Upon Various Subjects:
Abracadabra, strange mysterious word,
In order writ, can wond’rous cures afford.
This be the rule:-a strip of parchment take,
Cut like a pyramid revers’d in make.
Abracadabra, first at length you name,
Line under line, repeating still the same:
Cut at its end, each line, one letter less,
Must then its predecessor line express;
’Till less’ning by degrees the charm descends
With conic form, and in a letter ends.
Round the sick neck the finish’d wonder tie,
And pale disease must from the patient fly.
In Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Daniel Defoe reported that many people attributed the Black Death to possession by an evil spirit and believed the Abracadabra charm could ward it off.
In popular culture, the word abracadabra is most often associated with awakening the genie in a magic lamp (to grant a wish) and pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
Dogura-Magura is a Japanese equivalent to abracadabra.
“Abner Kadabra” is the title of an episode of the television series Bewitched (1965).
When a little girl asked professional magician David Greene, “Why does a magic word like abracadabra work?” his reply was “It works because you believe in it.”[xlii]
Abra Kadabra is a villainous stage magician who first appears in the comic book Flash #128 (1962): “Abra Kadabra hails from the 64th Century, an era in which science is sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic, and the art of stage magic is dead. Obsessed with a need for applause, and championing the cause of the individual in an era of mechanical precision, he traveled back in time to torment the second Flash.”[xliii]
“Debra Kadabra” is the title of a song by Frank Zappa (1975), concerning a “witch goddess” whose full name is “Debra Algebra Ebneezra Kadabra” or “Debra Fauntleroy Magnesium Kadabra.”
Abra Cadabra is a legendary old wise woman and oracle in the novel Jonah by Dana Redfield (2000).
In the Bugs Bunny cartoon “Transylvania 6-5000” (1963), Bugs the Magician uses abracadabra to turn the menacing vampire Count Bloodcount into a “bumbling bat.” “Always enchanted by wretched excess, Bugs experiments with ever-weirder abracadabras, resulting in ever-more-extravagant vampiric incarnations.”[xliv]
“Lady Abracadabra” is the name of a fairy “in no humor to be turned into a toad,” in The Hope of the Katzekopfs (1844) by William Churne of Straffordshire.[xlv]
“Abracadabra Day” is “the best holiday of all,” listed “in no almanac and printed in no calendar.” It is explained in Mr. Mysterious & Company (1962) by Sid Fleischman: “The secret was this: No matter how bad you were on Abracadabra Day or no matter what pranks you pulled, you would not be spanked or punished. . . . There was only one rule about Abracadabra Day. You must not tell anybody the day you had chosen to be bad. . . . It was like magic to do something naughty and not get punished.”
[i] “Amid a blinding cloud of smoke, a cadaverous voice cries aloud, ‘Abra-cadabra.’” —Variety review of the television program “The Magic Horseshoe” (1953). “‘Abracadabra.’ The sound had cold fingers squeezing Luke’s spine.” —Nora Roberts, Honest Illusions (1992).
[ii] “The custom of closing or covering the eyes while saying the blessing enacts the transformation of the world, since, when you reopen your eyes Abracadabra! the weekday, workaday world is special, holy, and Shabbat.” —Anita Diamant, How to Be a Jewish Parent: A Practical Handbook for Family Life (2000)
[iii] Alan Furst, Dark Voyage (2004), referencing the fairy tale of Cinderella
[iv] Carolyn S. Kortge, The Spirited Walker: Fitness Walking For Clarity, Balance, and Spiritual Connection (1998)
[v] Marcel Danesi, Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things (1999)
[vi] Martin Fry (1991)
[vii] “‘Please is a good magic word,’ I said, ‘but the magic word for magicians is ‘abracadabra.’” —Ace Starry, The Magic Life: A Novel Philosophy (2003)
[viii] Deborah Lipp, The Way of Four: Create Elemental Balance in Your Life (2004)
[ix] The Valley of Light (2003)
[x] Deep Play (2000)
[xi] Wild Sweet Notes: Fifty Years of West Virginia Poetry 1950-1999 (2000)
[xii] Sexus (1962)
[xiii] Gustav Davidson, Dictionary of Angels: Including the Fallen Angels (1994)
[xiv] Richard Cavendish, The Black Arts (1968)
[xv] E.S. Shaffer, Comparative Criticism, Volume 9 (1987)
[xvi] Richard Coates, Word Structure (1999)
[xvii] Richard Coates, Word Structure (1999)
[xix] Richard Cavendish, The Black Arts (1968)
[xx] Herman Slater, A Book of Pagan Rituals (1978)
[xxi] Wolfram Von Soden, The Ancient Orient (1994)
[xxii] Constance Victoria Briggs, The Encyclopedia of God: An A-Z Guide to Thoughts, Ideas, and Beliefs About God (2003)
[xxiii] Bob Brier, Ancient Egyptian Magic (1999)
[xxiv] The Greek Qabalah: Alphabetical Mysticism and Numerology in the Ancient World (1999)
[xxv] Daniel Hillis, Pattern on the Stone (1999)
[xxvi] ‘Mythological’ Astronomy of the Ancients Demonstrated, quoted in The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly Palmer Hall (1928)
[xxvii] Estelle Frankel, Sacred Therapy: Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing and Inner Wholeness (2004)
[xxviii] David Colbert, The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter: A Treasury of Myths, Legends, and Fascinating Facts (2004)
[xxix] David Aaron, Endless Light: The Ancient Path of Kabbalah (1998)
[xxx] Gustav Davidson, Dictionary of Angels: Including the Fallen Angels (1994)
[xxxi] J.E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols (2002)
[xxxii] Susan G. Woolridge, Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words (1997)
[xxxiii] Alan Lew, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared (2003)
[xxxiv] Llewellyn Encyclopedia (2002)
[xxxv] Dialogue: The Art Of Thinking Together (1999)
[xxxvi] Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism (1911)
[xxxvii] Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition (1939)
[xxxviii] Tom Ogden, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Magic Tricks (1998)
[xxxix] Donald Tyson’s annotation to the works of Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy (1993)
[xl] Tom Ogden, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Magic Tricks (1998)
[xli] Gustav Davidson, Dictionary of Angels: Including the Fallen Angels (1994)
[xlii] “Magician David Greene Launches Lower School Book Fair with Demonstration of the ‘Magic of Reading,’” Christ Church Episcopal School newsletter (2003)
[xliii] Kelson Vibber, “The Flash: Those Who Ride the Lightning” (2005)
[xliv] Steven Jay Schneider, Horror Film and Psychoanalysis (2004)
[xlv] Peter Hunt, Children’s Literature: An Anthology 1801-1902 (2001)