Saturday, December 31, 2011


A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

“Persian poets say that Satan is sustained by his memory of the sound of God’s voice when he said ‘Begone!’"

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Magical Word is the Chanted Word

"'This is really a magical revolution', [W.B.] Yeats concluded, 'for the magical word is the chanted word.'" —Sean Pryor, W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, and the Poetry of Paradise (2011)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Designed to Hoodwink the Public

A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

“It smacked of impenetrable mumbo jumbo, designed to hoodwink the public.” —Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (2004)

Saturday, December 17, 2011


“You'll tell me the magic word, then?”
Morgan relented. “It's Tohin-ontan.”
—Julie Tetel, Sweet Sarah Ross (2011)

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Door to an Alternative Reality

"When we find a magical word like epopt or construe words to bring a surprise in our life, like placing an unexpected ad in a newspaper, we find that a word can be more than a representation of what we already know. It can serve as a door to an alternative reality."
—Bradford Keeney, The Flying Drum: The Mojo Doctor's Guide to Creating Magic in Your Life (2011)

Thursday, December 8, 2011


"When love reaches you, it is a magical feeling. It is a magical word, 'love', in my language and in all languages: amore, sayang, dragoste, liefde, amour, upendo , bhalobashi. They all have a special ring to them." —Robert F. Luce, Fall Into the Ebony (2011)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Strung Together Fantastically

"The hymns from the Rig-veda are no longer used with any regard to their sense, but the verses are taken away from their context and strung together fantastically, because they all contain some magical word, or because the scheme of their meters, when arranged according to the increasing or decreasing number of syllables, resembles a thunderbolt wherewith the sacrificer may slay his foes, or for some equally valid reason."
—E. J. Rapson, Ancient India: From the Earliest Times to the First Century AD (1914)

Thursday, December 1, 2011


A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

“Voilà!” she repeated, perhaps with a hint more insistence, when the magician failed to take her cue.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

LeiKeiShei! Obeh Keh! Leh'keh Rekisha!

We were contacted this week regarding a mysterious phrase:
Every so often I'll hear a song in a dream. Every so often I'll hear an eldritch language in a dream. Recently it was both. Sometimes the meaning of the words is given to me in the dream. Sometimes I have no idea what the words meaning is but later find out they are words that exist in currently living, foreign languages.

As I recall, this time it was strange words coloring a kind of song-incantation. Also there were a lot more words this time, so I doubt I would be able to figure it out on my own at my current level of resources and learning at this point in life without the help of someone more expert in this area.

LeiKeiShei! Obeh Keh! Leh'keh Rekisha!

I tried to transliterate the words based on how they sounded to me as well as my seeming innate understanding of where phrases began and ended.

I currently I have no idea what language it could be, if it's a language that exists on Earth. It reminds me of Japanese but it doesn't sound like any Japanese I've ever heard.

Your website was one of the first things that popped up when I decided to seek out the meaning of these words through Google. As you've written a book about Magic Words, I figure there might be a chance you'd be willing to help me, Mr. Conley.

Any assistance provided is appreciated.

We've given the mysterious syllables some thought. In a Malay dialect they seem to suggest "A worthless, sorrowful torch commensurate to the insignificant protection [afforded by] Shiva." Though we're officially stumped for the time being, consider this about the nature of words heard in dreams: "Though it may sound like a contradiction, the inner voice originates from a source outside us. There are many names for this source: God, Mother, Earth, the noosphere, the collective unconscious, Universal Spirit, and so on" (Hal Zina Bennett, The Lens of Perception, 1995).

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Discerning Beauty Beneath the Surface

Can a magic word unlock nature's deeper meaning?

In all things a song lies sleeping,
That keeps dreaming to be heard.
And the world will rise up singing,
If you find the magic word.
—Joseph von Eichendorff, qtd. in Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology by Alister E. McGrath

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

When Words Fail, Music Speaks

Mitch Traphagen turns to music when words fail him. He notes that "Music is magic. Words, however, are becoming a problem, I think. Words are failing. In my opinion there are simply too many of them."

Once Upon a Time

A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

“The audience has come to the theatre to believe, to respond to the magical words, ‘Once upon a time.’”

Monday, November 21, 2011

Do we need a good reason to look at these bunnies peeking out of a magician's top hat? They are from Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes. (Screen grab courtesy of DVDBeaver.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

We'll Change the Word to Sparkle

"You didn't use the magic word."
"Ben, please."
“That isn't the magic word. It's twink—”
“Don't say that.”
“Okay. We'll change the word to sparkle. Do you like that better?”
—Karen Toller Whittenburg, The Fifty-Cent Groom (2011)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Read, Aim, Fire

A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

“‘Ready, aim, fire’ is [a] mantra.” —Howard Kaminsky and Alexandra Penney, Magic Words at Work (2004)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

22 (and counting) Definitions of Magic

Here are twenty-two (and counting) thought-provoking definitions of magic, curated by The Conjurer:

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Whether It Went Well or Not ...

Whether it went well or not, say the magic word.
—Binami Eva-Uku, The Power of Mistake (2011)

Sunday, November 6, 2011


The ancient Egyptian word transcribed as xeper, pronounced khefer, means "to come into being." "To know this word is to know that the ultimate responsibility for the evolution of your psyche is in your hands. It is the Word of freedom, ecstasy, fearful responsibility, and the root of all magic" (Don Webb, quoted in Stealing Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Modern Western Magic by Nevill Drury, 2011).

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Once an Open Sesame

A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

“[S]eal (and otter) skins, once an open sesame to the teas and silks of China . . .” —Roy Nickerson, Sea Otters (1998)

Monday, October 31, 2011

Hallowe'en and Candlelight

In this incantation from Life magazine, 1903, "Hallowe'en and candle-light" are summoned to reveal one's true love.

Friday, October 28, 2011


A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

“In desperation, Samuel grasped the ring pin tightly in his hands, closed his eyes and shouted, ‘Odin, Odin, Odin.’"

(For a picture of Odin and a note about the "Odic Force," see this page from our book entitled Jinx Companion.)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Magic Word Fled to California

One day, the magic word made a dumb decision and fled town to the mythical far away land of California.
—Tj Klune, Bear, Otter, and the Kid (2011)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Love stands at the gateway of each human soul, holding in his hands a rose and a drawn sword—the sword is for the many, the rose for the one.

We love this visionary passage in which love is defined as a "magician whose word can change water to blood." Here's the full context:

Love is the immortal essence of mortal passion, together they are as soul and body, one being; separate them, and the body without the soul is a monster; the soul without the body is no longer human, nor earthly, nor real to us at all, though still divine. Love is the world's maker, master and destroyer, the magician whose word can change water to blood, and blood to fire, the dove to a serpent, and the serpent to a dove—ay, and can make of that same dove an eagle, with an eagle's beak, and talons, and air-cleaving wing-stroke. Love is the spirit of life and the angel of death. He speaks, and the thorny wilderness of the lonely heart is become a paradise of flowers. He is silent, and the garden is but a blackened desert over which a destroying flame has passed in the arms of the east wind. Love stands at the gateway of each human soul, holding in his hands a rose and a drawn sword—the sword is for the many, the rose for the one.
(F. Marion Crawford, The Witch of Prague, 1890)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Review of The JINX Companion

Thanks to magician Jamy Ian Swiss for his Genii review of our book The JINX Companion. Swiss concludes: "This is like taking a jungle safari with a guide who loves the terrain. It’s a trip you shouldn’t miss."

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Now You See It, Now You Don't

A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

The magic trigger in now you see it, now you don’t is actually in the silence between the two phrases.

(See our previous note about "now you see it, now you don't.")

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Words as a Playground for Mojo

"Can the right words evoke magic? As a mojo doctor, I can tell you emphatically YES. A single word can bring on sudden and profound transformation. Through spontaneity, words also free up the tension between opposite or extreme ideas, allowing them to be teased and played with, which leads to even greater transformation."
—Bradford Keeney, The Flying Drum: The Mojo Doctor's Guide to Creating Magic in Your Life (2011)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

An Air of Authentic Secret Knowledge

A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

Medieval conjurors first began using exotic words to “give their performances an air of authentic secret knowledge.”

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Only Thing Worth Pursuing in This Life

"No sane person really wants to live scientifically, they simply did magic wrong and became disenchanted with it. But saying you believe in 'science' and 'reason' is like saying you believe in tape measures and staple guns. Those things are just tools. Transcendence is the only thing worth pursuing in this life." —Christoper Knowles. Here are his suggestions on re-enchanting one's life.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Black jet crystals: I swear to you that azabache
is a magic word. If you repeat
the incantation for a thousand million years
black shiny fossils will appear
in the carbonized tears of Araucaria
—Mariana Romo-Carmona, Sobrevivir y Otros Complejos

(Azabache means a deep black, glistening color.)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Savoring Even the Tiny Silence

A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

"She would utter them slowly, savoring even the tiny silence between the two syllables, and the almost inaudible t."

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Ancient Esotericism was a Remarkably Pragmatic Undertaking

Sure, your Richard Dawkinses may scoff at it all but people who'll still be remembered long after he's rotted away took it all very, very seriously.
—Christopher Knowles, in this terrific article on esoteric words that have lost their meaning

Monday, September 26, 2011

Words Take on Meanings that Transcend Them

Christopher Knowles puts it quite nicely: "Words are triggers. No matter what their technical definition may be, words take on meanings that transcend them. In order to put new ideas across, we need to learn to use language more skillfully."

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Quest to Find a Magic Word?

“So we're going on a quest to find a magic word?”
—Brandon Mull, A World Without Heroes (2011)

(Photo by mygothlaundry)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

“The very word rune conjures up magical associations in the word hoard of Old English and Germanic languages.”

Saturday, September 17, 2011


A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

In Vodou, green bananas and bones are offerings to Legba, the supernatural Master of Passageways and opener of doors.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


This magic word from African folklore is understandable by goats alone:

"As Anansi was about to get home, he addressed the animal in the sack by saying the magic word, dabrekotwasuhoro."
—Kwame A. Insaidoo, Moral Lessons in African Folktales

Monday, September 12, 2011


A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

Of Caribbean origin, Rata-pata-scata-fata is “an old-time Virgin Islands way of talking nonsense—Caribbean gobbledygook.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Bring Back What Once was Mine

Flower gleam and glow; let your power shine
Make the clock reverse; bring back what once was mine
Heal what has been hurt; change the fate's design
Save what has been lost, bring back what once was mine
What once was mine.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The One Minute Mystic

Instantly understand and even see a mystical image when you gaze upon a heavenly body. We discuss a technique for staring at the sun and other sources of bright light in this field report from USA's oldest city: Saint Augustine, Florida. (See our companion booklet The One Minute Mystic.)

Monday, September 5, 2011

Reverse the Spell

A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

“'And to reverse this amazing effect,’ I boomed in my biggest stage voice, ‘you simply reverse the spell.’"

Friday, September 2, 2011

Kazazum and Kazuzam

The anagrammatic magic words Kazazum and Kazuzam are used for opening and closing a tent in "Skeezicks, Sknks and Co" by George Randolph Chester (McClure's magazine, Feb. 1907).

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Nonmagic Words Hinder Real Communication

"Nonmagic words—the vocabulary of the human race—hinder real communication. ... Magic words emanate from the heart." —Phillip Cooper

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

It is a Seed

Can you guess which magic word is referenced here?

“[I]t is a seed, a spiritual food, a magic word which opens a long-hidden, underground treasure-house.”

Here's the answer, if you give up.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


“‘Money?’ Pett, the student, became Pett, the financier, at the magic word.” —P.G. Wodehouse, Piccadilly Jim (1918)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Tu-Ku-Linga Mvula

Tu-ku-linga mvula: "we want rain" (an invocation by a Congo medicine man). From E. J. Glave's In Savage Africa: or, Six Years of Adventure in Congo-Land (1892).

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Not Without the Magic Word

“Not without the magic word. If you can't say it, get me someone who can.”
—Chris Knopf, Bad Bird: A Mystery

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Breath of Witches

A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

More predominant in old Gaelic folklore, the breath of witches or wise-women was said to have magical properties.

(See also our previous post about magic on the breath.)

(Photo by chiaralily)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Alakazoo, four-leaf clover

A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

“Alakazoo, four-leaf clover, back we fly, your turn is over.” —Deborah Hautzig, Little Witch’s Big Night (1984)

Monday, August 8, 2011

Alla-kazooey, alla-kazammy

A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

“[H]e waved the wand over the cloth-covered cage several times, ‘Alla-kazooey, alla-kazammy, hey . . . presto!’"

Saturday, August 6, 2011


Presto is a flash—the very essence of spontaneity, the profound magic of the “instant” when something shifts. Presto says “magic is in the air. Do not try to figure it out; you cannot. It is the power of the unknown at work, and something special is about to happen.” The word itself begs to be spoken quickly, as if without thinking. Truly spontaneous speech is when the thought and the word are identical, like unselfconscious singing in the bathtub. We capture that energy when we jump outside ourselves with “courage and humor and openness and perspective and carelessness, in the sense of burning your mental bridges behind you, outreaching yourself.” When a magician says presto in such a spontaneous way, the air is electric and his spectators are transfixed, astounded. Presto is the moment that will be etched in their memories, because it is the moment they opened up to the possibility of the impossible. Upon speaking the word presto, even the magician’s mouth is open in amazement.

Presto is the moment when legends are born. Brandon Bays recalls such a moment while seeing ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev in Romeo and Juliet at the Metropolitan Opera House. “[T]here was a moment when it seemed as if time stood still. It was as if Nureyev reached into the depths of his soul—into genius itself. He leaped into the air, and his legs spread into a full split; then, for a moment, it was as if he lifted even higher—as if he was practically floating in the air.” Presto moments happen often in the world of sports, as when a bat sends a ball soaring. That “whack” is the presto that brings everything to a standstill, “and in that gap of absolute silence the soul flashes forth—an immensity revealing itself . . . a presence of vastness . . . a greatness that can’t be explained . . . and then whack!—ball hit, hair standing on end. Something great had revealed itself in that tiny instant. One heart, one breath, hair on end. We’d dropped into the ‘Gap’ for an instant and this vast truth had, in a flash, revealed itself.” What is that vast truth? Bay suggests that it’s the same as Nureyev’s inner genius: our own greatness flashes forth, we see ourselves in the mirror, we remember our own magic, and ripples of joy spread through the audience. The magic of those presto moments is what sweeps people up for a standing ovation. No wonder presto is such a popular magic word. It’s the magic wand blooming into a bouquet. It’s the miracle of levitation. It’s every special effect that’s especially affective. It’s smoke and mirrors in a nutshell.

(See our dictionary of magic words for the footnotes to the above passage.)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Waiting for the Two Magic Words of Wisdom

A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

“My friend held his breath, waiting for the two magic words of wisdom that would solve all his problems."

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Kum [kunka] yali, kum buba tambe

A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

"‘Kum [kunka] yali, kum buba tambe,’ and more magic words, said so quickly, they sounded like whispers and sighs."

Saturday, July 30, 2011


The magic word learned from the brothers of San Juan de Dios is compassion.
—Gelasia Marquez, Finding Myself

Thursday, July 28, 2011


Lines taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

“Brahman was, at first, nothing else than the sacred word itself in the magic hymn and in the sacred myth; it was the magic word of power, the priests set in motion, which they attributed to the gods themselves and exalted above the gods, which they associated with the forces and the processes of nature, until it became identified—still in a mystic sense—with the ultimate principle of the world and nature itself.”

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Out of Its Pages

An illustration from a 1908 issue of Harper's magazine. The caption reads: "A strange new light would shine out of its pages."

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Most Dreadful Moans

A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

To my amazement, he turned perfectly white, covered his face with his hands, and burst out with the most dreadful moans.

Friday, July 22, 2011


'Attitude' is universal and it is the magic word. 'Magic' means a manifestation of order.
—Clever Zulu, Absolute Abundance

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pif and Paf

A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

In British folklore, Pif and Paf are names of “the country where cats are made,” homeplace to the Breton fairies.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Discarding the Spell

"In the war of magic and religion, is magic ultimately the victor? Perhaps priest and magician were once one, but the priest, learning humility in the face of God, discarded the spell for prayer." -- Patti Smith, Just Kids (2010)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Of East and West

A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

The knowledge of the East and the West is mine, and the secrets of the mysterious cults of Africa and India!

Saturday, July 16, 2011


Alakazam’s power lies in its mystery. The word is the very definition of secret. It’s something beyond understanding, something we can never get to the bottom of, something so wondrous it should only be whispered, if uttered at all. Alakazam expresses something unobservable, hence its appropriateness for sleight-of-hand. It describes a contradiction—a paradox—hence its appropriateness for illusions demonstrating the impossible. It’s an ephemeral word, gone almost before it can be fully spoken: the initial ala is a distant echo by the time the zam takes a powder. It’s also an ethereal word, inherently otherworldly.

Alakazam retains an aura of mystery—and therefore magic—even as most other words have become mundane with usage.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Attempts to Change the World

Lines taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

"Unlike concrete poetry, these shapes are not clever linguistic games but attempts to change the world. Dismemberment of language produces enigma; but at the same time a performative act is being brought about. Language is simultaneously ruined and employed."

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


“You said the magic word ‘gold’ again, Ghend. I could sit here all day and listen to you talk about it.” —David Eddings, The Redemption of Althalus (2000)

(Photo by rhino8888)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Bing Bang Bam (Boom)

A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

Bing bang bam is an expression of a quick sequence of events, sometimes followed by a boom to signify the culmination.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Puzzling Black Marks

An illustration from a 1908 issue of Harper's magazine. The caption reads: "The puzzling black marks on the white pages spoke to us."

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Combination

A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

"Maybe it’s a combination—of magic in the words, and naming.” —A.C. Lemieux, The Fairy Lair: A Magic Place (1998)

Monday, July 4, 2011

Oocha Coocha Bing Bang Bam, Alakazy Alakazam

Oocha Coocha Bing Bang Bam, Alakazy Alakazam is an incantation for making a serpent hiccup in the novel The Key to the Land of Dogs by Gareth M. Wilson (2004).

Saturday, July 2, 2011

There's an ancient magic word within this painting by Geof Huth. The letters i, a, and o spell Iao, the name for the light that only the mind can perceive. Iao is the demiurgic god with the adorable name (i.e., Abraxas [from the Egyptian Abrak, 'bow down' or 'adore']) who features prominently on amulets. Iao "bears the cock's head, which is the emblem of Aesculapius, the god of healing. ... The serpent (the emblem of mystery, of eternity, of wisdom, the prophet of gnosis) walks without feet, and therefore Iao is serpent-legged" (Paul Carus).

Thursday, June 30, 2011

From the Inside Out

A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

The Oracle’s vocabulary contains magic words that instantly mesmerize the spectators, dazzling them from the inside out.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


"Hollywood?" Her eyes have lit up; clearly I've mentioned the magic word.
—Holly McQueen, Confetti Confidential

(Photo by neonmarg)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Open Sesame

“‘Open Sesame!’ yelled Henry, just in case it might work.” —Beverly Cleary, Henry and the Clubhouse (1962)

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Peach, A Plum, a Half s Stick of Chewing Gum

“Say the magic word, a peach, a plum, a half a stick of chewing gum.” —T. Berry Brazelton, Touchpoints 3 to 6 (2001)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

In our tireless hunt for magic words in the wild, we stumbled upon an honest-to-goodness [witch's] cauldron at the site of the bubbling of the very first Brunswick Stew.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Not Abra and Cadabra

“The two most potent magic words are not abra and cadabra.” —Steven L. Case, The Book of Uncommon Prayer (2002)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Ala-ka-zee, Ala-ka-zam

A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

“Ala-ka-zee, Ala-ka-zam, Let me be who I am.” —Elyse F. Aronson, “Ms. Goose and Her Wonderful Rhymes” (1999)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Some Strange, Weird-Sounding Name

From The Strand magazine, 1895:
"He called some strange, weird-sounding name three times."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


"And she thunked the tiger over the head with her good witch wand and said the magic word, ‘Ooo-cha!’" —Coleen Sydor, Ooo-cha! (1999)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

All the Innocent Awe

A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

Speak a magic word as if you might never utter it again, with all the innocent awe of a child beseeching a parent.

Friday, June 10, 2011


"I must be an Abraxas of change, a maker of effect.” —Marvin Spiegelman, Reich, Jung, Regardie & Me (1992)

(See our previous explanation of the magic word Abraxas.)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Bibbity Bobbity Boo

“One ‘bibbity bobbity boo’ later, there she is dancing with the prince.” —Calvin Miller, The Empowered Leader (1995)

The magic phrase in question was popularized in Disney's Cinderella.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Long Strings of Vowels

A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

Incantations of long strings of vowels appear in Greek-Egyptian magical papyri dating back to the second century BCE.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Jiggery Pokery

“The universe is what it is and can’t be changed by jiggery-pokery.” —Robert A. Heinlein, Glory Road (1963)

(See also our previous note about the meaning of jiggery-pokery.)

Thursday, June 2, 2011


During a show at the Magic Castle, professional magician Tom Ogden called bingo “the magic word I learned in church.”

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Golden Key

A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

“It’s the magic word all right, the golden key, the open sesame.” —Keri Hulme, The Bone People (1986)

Sunday, May 29, 2011


"[The] past is near us, so near that we almost feel its warmth. That word, yesterday, envelops us in nostalgic echoes, as when we awaken with our sense of time and logic still confused, and the memory of a happy hour lived the day before reverberates in our minds."
—Giorgio de Chirico, Hebdomeros (and other writings)

Friday, May 27, 2011


"Romantic! A strange word, pregnant with meanings that seem to come to us from afar. A word that gives rise to suspicions and ambiguities."
—Giorgio de Chirico, Hebdomeros (and other writings)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


"Memories! What a deep resonant word, so evocative and full of feeling! It grips you simply to say it, or even read it."
—Giorgio de Chirico, Hebdomeros

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Out of Nowhere

"She looked at Victor expectantly, as if he could conjure up Prosper like he'd magicked Bo out of nowhere." -- The Thief Lord, Cornelia Funke

Monday, May 23, 2011


A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

"Magicians living in the 12th and 13th centuries used Syos as a magical invocation to the cardinal directions."

Saturday, May 21, 2011


"A magic word shone in the air like the cross of Constantine and multiplied itself in space to the edge of the horizon like the ads for a toothpaste: Delphoï! Delphoï!"
—Giorgio de Chirico, Hebdomeros

Delphoï of course echoes the site of the Delphic oracle in the classical Greek world.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Eternal Mainspring

"Hocus pocus, the eternal mainspring of mathematics and metaphysics!"
—Robert Desnos' novel written in a trance state, Liberty or Love!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

"We blew the fizz off dandelions in order to have wishes come true, or wished upon the first rising star."

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Magic Word Ignites

"Can a thought on its own create fire? There is a fire sleeping all around mankind, hidden, invisible but everywhere. A magic word, perhaps, and in an instant it ignites and consumes the whole world."
The Angel in the West Window, Gustav Meyrink's novel of the Elizabethan magus John Dee (our own 9th cousin)

Friday, May 13, 2011

To Be "Magic"

A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

“To be ‘magic,’ words do not have to have a mysterious sound, an esoteric meaning, or a special history.”

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Magic is a Problem of Language

magic is a problem of language
the key
is to understand:
which language?

Enrique Enriquez

Monday, May 9, 2011


(See also our earlier post about abracadabra.)

Saturday, May 7, 2011


A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

“Never knew ‘Whoopti-ti-yi-yo’ qualified as magic words.” —Christopher Stasheff, The Secular Wizard (1995)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Magic Wand of a Word

We love the phrase "a magic wand of a word" in this sentence:

"Recently, this word 'diagram' has become quite a magic wand of a word in the United States; something like the word 'type' in the 1970s, 'postmodern' in the 1980s, and 'blob' in the 1990s."
—Anthony Vidler, "Architecture's Expanded Field," Constructing a New Agenda

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas

I am full of my answers,
but orphan of my clues.

(See our previous post about this palindromic magic phrase)

Sunday, May 1, 2011


A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

“Zing!—A shimmering ray of sunlight, powerful as a laser beam, flashed.” —Roger George Clark, The Magic Statue (2004)

Friday, April 29, 2011


Credo! Great word of mystic might,
Grow clearer on my soul,
Flash through its deepest depths thy light
—Cassie M. O'Hara, "Credo," The Irish Monthly (1884)

Credo is of Latin origin, meaning "I believe."

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

"But all my frozen brain could come up with was, ‘¡Albóndigas!’” —David Lubar, Wizards of the Game (2003)

Monday, April 25, 2011


From our Abecedarian outpost:

"There is only the finest line between 'I am dreaming' and 'I am in a dream,' since the brain creates both states. Why not cross the line?" —Deepak Chopra, Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul (2009)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Wishka, Washka, Wushka

"[T]he fairy jumped up and down in front of the old lady squirrel three times, and said: ‘Wishka, Washka, Wushka!’ which is magical, you know, and then she added: ‘Look at your tail!’ and believe me, if grandma’s tail hadn’t turned silver-gray, just like grandpa’s, and she felt ever so much better. Then the fairy jumped out of the window and disappeared, after saying good-bye.” —Howard Roger Garis, Johnnie and Billie Bushytail (1910)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Cosmic Abracadabra

“A flawless sapphire, star-bright, a cosmic abracadabra...” —Lisa Rosenblatt

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Magic Vowels

This Wills's cigarette card shows a talisman with Greek vowels. According to the information on the back of the card, "the desired favors were supposed to be granted upon the correct utterance of the forty-nine different sounds of the Seven Vowels, each vowel having seven distinct methods of expression." Moreover, the ancients believed there was a correspondence between the seven vowels and seven planets known to them.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sucop Sucoh

Sucop, Sucoh! Hold on tight! Soon my magic will work right.
—Kemal Kurt, Mixed-Up Journey to Magic Mountain (2002)

Facts: This magic phrase is hocus pocus spelled backwards.

In Literature:

  • From Mixed-Up Journey to Magic Mountain by Kemal Kurt (2002):
  • Rabbit’s paw, garden snail,
    Cat’s eye, mouse hair, dragon tail,
    Cross your fingers if you dare,
    From my hat will hop a hare!
    Sucop, Sucoh!
    You will see,
    My spells are working perfectly!
  • “The crowd circles around the old soothsayer with his long white beard and gray tunic. He was casting his wicked incantations upon Anazasi. ‘sucop . . . sucoh,’ he chanted loudly.” —Joseph DeMarco, 4 Hundred and 20 Assassins of Emir Abdullah-Harazins (2004)
  • Monday, April 18, 2011

    His Slightest Wish

    A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

    “His slightest wish seemed always to be translated instantly into the most impressive kind of reality."

    Sunday, April 17, 2011

    Oolong Caloophid Baeower Gazots

    This magic incantation is featured in The Intercontinental Union of Disgusting Characters by Roger M. Wilcox (1986). The words Oolong Caloophid reference the humorous science fiction novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Wilcox explains: “Oolong Caloophid is . . . the author of that trilogy of philosophical blockbusters, ‘Where God Went Wrong,’ ‘Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes,’ and ‘Who Is This God Person Anyway?’”

    Friday, April 15, 2011

    Mist Streaming

    A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

    “Mist streaming over the ridge, snatching trees and boulders from view then magically revealing them once more."

    Thursday, April 14, 2011


    A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

    Yet as insubstantial as a puff of smoke may be, there’s an undeniable concreteness to poof as a magic word.

    Wednesday, April 13, 2011

    Machts Nichts


  • I’m easy
  • “‘Naw, macht nichts, let’s walk.’ Jack pronounces it ‘mox nix,’ meaning ‘makes no difference’ or, in air force parlance, ‘I’m easy.’” —Ann-Marie MacDonald, The Way the Crow Flies (2003)
  • Matters not
  • Never mind
  • Whatever
  • Origins: This is a German colloquial expression.

    Variations and Incantations:

  • Mox Nix
  • Mocks Nicks
  • In Literature:

  • “She took a drag and waved both the smoke and the image away, dismissing them with the words she used to take the curse off all vexations, ‘Machts nichts.’ I repeated the magical words under my breath. Mox nix.” —Sarah Bird, The Yokota Officers Club (2001)
  • Monday, April 11, 2011

    Hisses as Magic Words

    “As they landed, Rolf waited a clear view, then gave a short sharp ‘Hist!’ It was like a word of magic, for it turned the three moving deer to three stony-still statues.” —Ernest Thompson Seton, Rolf In The Woods (1911)

    “The ‘hissings and murmurings’ . . . of magicians.” —Edward Peters, The Magician, the Witch and the Law (1978)"

    "Jack Starhouse could make [cats] dance wild dances, leaping about upon their hind legs and casting themselves from side to side. This he did by strange sighs and whistlings and hissings.” —Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004)

    Sunday, April 10, 2011

    An Abracadabra Talisman followup

    Our magician friend and home-hacking expert Gordon shares a lovely photo response to our previous post about the abracadabra talisman. Our favorite detail in the photo is the ironic "Do Not Duplicate" message on the key next to the talisman. By the way, Gordon inspired and co-authored our latest book on magic, JINX Companion.

    Saturday, April 9, 2011


    A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

    For author M.M. Kaye, “Zanzibar is one of those names that possess a peculiar, singing magic in every syllable."

    Friday, April 8, 2011

    A Poetic Formula

    Gary Barwin offers a poetic formula for creating a magic wand and/or a magic word:

    Meanwhile, here's a line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

    "I waved my linked hands around and chanted, ‘Football touchdown, toilet plunger, hocus pocus, woof!’"

    Thursday, April 7, 2011

    A Magical Radiance

    "He realized how the world would grow anew with a magical radiance if he should ever manage to see all the things that habit and routine had robbed of speech in a fresh light."
    —Gustav Meyrink, The Green Face

    Wednesday, April 6, 2011

    Words Fluttered Like Black Moths

    A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

    "From between those pages . . . from the leaves of the forest trees . . . words fluttered like black moths."


    Meanwhile, Gordon notes some interesting word clouds which "are incantations to induce children to buy whatever is being advertised." See these word clouds of gendered language in toy commercials here.

    Tuesday, April 5, 2011


    "Isaïs is the woman within all women, and one word may transform all womankind into Isaïs!"
    —Gustav Meyrink, The Angel of the West Window

    (Meyrink here uses an alternate spelling of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of the earth.)

    Monday, April 4, 2011

    Bob's Your Uncle

    A driving instructor who looks like a mentalist is pressured by his girlfriend to become a magician in the British comedy series The I.T. Crowd, in season three's episode "Are We Not Men?" His magic phrase is "Bob's your uncle." (Note that he's pressured to leave his old job because "that's almost the worst look a driving instructor could have.")

    Sunday, April 3, 2011

    An Abracadabra Talisman

    This Wills's cigarette card from the 1920's shows an abracadabra talisman. It's number 13 of a series on lucky charms.

    The Doves Took Wing

    “Magic is a science of language.” —Alan Moore (Thanks, Enrique Enriquez!)


    Here's a line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:

    "One by one, the doves took wing and disappeared into the seemingly infinite depths of the black silk topper."

    Friday, April 1, 2011

    A Substitute for Abracadabra

    We reveal a substitute for "abracadabra," worthy of fairy tales, in our outpost at Twitter.

    Hazard a Word Dropped Out of the Unknown

    "Divination is difficult with isolated incidents. Weaving them together into prophecy is an arduous labor. Hazard a word dropped out of the unknown. Several hazards sometimes make a whole sentence."
    —Leonora Carrington, "The Stone Door," The Seventh Horse

    Tuesday, March 29, 2011

    Power Not Based in Letters

    "A word's power is not based in the letters it is formed with, but rather your relationship, ideas, beliefs, images, and feelings about what the word symbolizes."
    —Bree Maresca-Kramer, It's That Simple

    Monday, March 28, 2011

    Unlocking Magic's Greatest Magazine

    We have a new book out for magicians and magic enthusiasts — a guide to the hidden gems of the classic magazine The Jinx (1934-42), entitled Jinx Companion.

    See it online for free at our Jinx Companion page.

    Friday, March 25, 2011


    "It is impossible to understand how millions and millions of people all obey a sickly collection of gentlemen that call themselves 'Government!' The word, I expect, frightens people. It is a form of planetary hypnosis, and very unhealthy."
    —Leonora Carrington, The Hearing Trumpet

    Tuesday, March 22, 2011

    When a Word's Power Diminishes

    "Every now and then, I find a word's power has diminished. It's a sign that I have changed and I'm ready to move on."
    —Mary Carroll Moore, How to Master Change in Your Life (1997)

    Saturday, March 19, 2011

    A Review of Alchemical Sequences Coloured

    Some of our favorite magic words are actually pictographic. Take, for example, the profoundly arcane Rebus figure of alchemy, conjoining the opposites, or the Ouroboros dragon who guards the treasure of the Great Work. Glasgow's Adam McLean is an authority on the symbolic language of alchemy. He shares his passion for the subject in a hardcover volume entitled Alchemical Sequences Coloured. It's a meticulous labor of love and a joy to behold and explore. Printed with extraordinary detail on high-quality, silky paper, the painstakingly hand-tinted emblems come to life, inspiring active study to unlock their mysteries. Each alchemical symbol is beautiful and intriguing in its own right, but together the symbols compose the basic elements of a grander allegorical literature. The very first page of McLean's emblems dispels the popular, romantic misconception of alchemists as gold-obsessed wizards. Two distinct yet complementary faces of alchemy become immediately apparent: the exoteric (empirical/methodical/experiential/scientific) and the esoteric (theoretical/psychological/poetical/mystical). Though there is no one correct definition of alchemy, it may be safe to say that McLean's emblems constitute knowledge meant to float outside of time like a message in a bottle. As Gustav Meyrink suggests in his mystical novel The Green Face, "What is of value is not the invention itself, but man's inventiveness, not the picture — it's value is measured in monetary terms at the most — but the ability to paint. Any one picture can fall to pieces, but the ability to paint will not be lost, even if the painter should die. What remains is the power that has come from heaven; even if it should sleep for centuries, it always awakens when the genius who can reveal its majesty is born." Indeed, McLean's ability to paint is the true genius of this book. Highly recommended!

    Mine and We

    Youngeun Choi explains how the possessive pronoun mine is a magic word.

    Meanwhile, Linda McPharlin favors another pronoun: we. Interestingly, she suggests that "'WE' can empower you to discover your own word. The word through which you will make your unique contribution to humankind to help us all reach our full potential both collectively and individually. Although there is magic in the word 'WE,' the real magic in it lies in you finding your magic word."

    Thursday, March 17, 2011

    Leaving a Mark

    "As we learn to own and reveal a word's power, we leave a mark on the world around us."
    —Patsy Rodenburg, "Re-Discovering Lost Voices," The Vocal Vision (1997)

    Tuesday, March 15, 2011

    Lettuce Say the Magic Word

    Chef Fred Raynaud has convinced us that lettuce is a magic word. He exclaims: "What a wonderful word—the word lettuce is. It is almost a proclamation. It beckons all its comrades to jump into the salad bowl and create something grand. It is a command, a call to action, a culinary trumpet if you will" (Reflections from the Kitchen).

    We once stumbled across someone described as "a literary lettuce-leaf." It is a withering put down, presumably; a "literary artichoke" wouldn't sound so limp and would offer a more substantial heart within. And yet, perhaps enchanted by the alliteration, we find ourselves intrigued by the idea of a literary lettuce leaf.

    Here's a lovely Lebanese folk song concerning a lettuce leaf:

    The roses are full, full
    The roses are always on my mind.
    I love the roses only
    And, O my soul, the lettuce leaf.

    In a poem by Ricardo Sternberg, a lettuce leaf becomes the shroud of an expired mouse.

    In Tom Robbins' Villa Incognito, mayonnaise cloaks a lettuce leaf like a magician's handkerchief, restoring the leaf's capacity to delight:

    Yellow as summer sunlight, soft as young thighs, smooth as a Baptist preacher's rant, falsely innocent as a magician's handkerchief, mayonnaise will cloak a lettuce leaf, some shreds of cabbage, a few hunks of cold potato in the simplest splendor, recycling their dull character, making them lively and attractive again, granting them the capacity to delight the gullet if not the heart.

    Fun fact: "In medieval belief, there were many ways a demon could enter the body, sometimes via so seemingly innocuous a vehicle as an unblessed lettuce leaf eaten by a careless nun" (Hilaire Kallendorf, Exorcism and Its Texts).

    Sunday, March 13, 2011

    A Review of Magic Words: A Dictionary

    A lovely review of our dictionary of magic words, from the Silver Star Journal:
    A massive and truly amazing tour de force of linguistic dexterity, merging sorcery, etymology, history, and literature into a global cascade of words of power magical and otherwise, drawn from countless ancient and modern civilizations. The art of Grammarye meets literary erudition, with each word examined, explained, and illuminated by wild and witty quotations from countless sources. Spells, mantras and Qabala meet slang, hokum and poetry. Enormous fun, and about thirty pages devoted to aspects of Abracadabra and its variants alone! Big fun! Hours of creative playtime!

    Magic is Perfected Poetry

    Enrique Enriquez defines magic and poetry, visually. Here's the link.

    Saturday, March 12, 2011

    Thrice Disposing of So Careless a Scrivener

    Our friend Gordon shares this snap from the classic book Greater Magic, in which John Northern Hilliard proposes a game of Hangman for those who would persecute him for his errors:

    Friday, March 11, 2011

    On the Pronoun "I"

    As collectors of one-letter words and lovers of microcosms, we were tickled by this description of "I":

    "More than anybody else I have always found it painful to express myself otherwise than by the pronoun I. Not that this should be taken as a sign of particular pride, but for me the word I is the structure of the world in a nutshell." —Michel Leiris, Aurora

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011

    Why Words are Treacherous

    "Words are treacherous because they are incomplete. The written word hangs in time like a lump of lead. Everything should move with the ages and the planets."
    —Leonora Carrington, "The Stone Door," The Seventh Horse

    Thursday, March 3, 2011

    Merely Language

    "The only reason a poem can be a magical experience, in those rare instances that it is, is because it uses, merely, language, the same language we use to argue about whose fault it was that we didn’t understand each other when we both spoke."
    Geof Huth

    Sunday, February 27, 2011

    Magic on the Breath

    "For the Rauto [people of Papua New Guinea] much of the power of magic is thought to be carried on the breath of the magician. When a leading magician begins to age, people will sometimes say that the magician's breath has gone ... or that the breath has lost heat and has become 'cold' and 'light,' and thus no longer laden with power." (Thomas Maschio, To Remember the Faces of the Dead: The Plenitude of Memory in Southwestern New Britain, 1994, p. 52).

    Thursday, February 24, 2011

    Magical-Sounding Words for Relaxation

    "Weird fiction" author Clark Ashton Smith read a dictionary for relaxation, delighting in the more obscure and magical-sounding words (The Mammoth Book of Sorcerer's Tales).

    Monday, February 21, 2011


    In Shakespeare's As You Like It, Rosalind says, "I was berimed." The word literally means "to be rhymed" and is similar to the melodious magic inherent in the etymologies of enchantment and incantation.

    Friday, February 18, 2011

    Words Enchant in Context

    "Words work when the imagination makes them work; in our minds we make and therefore remake our world. ... Words enchant in one setting, bore in another, because of the circumstance in which they are recited and the context in life's experience in which they are heard, not because of their propositions." —Jacob Neusner, Judaism in Monologue and Dialogue

    Tuesday, February 15, 2011


    Here's another look at the magic word treasure:
    Treasure! Next to gold, this is probably the single most magical word in the English language. The very mention of the word stirs the adventuresome spirit in most of us. But why are we so fascinated with tales of lost, sunken or buried treasure? Why, like little children, are we so captivated by the tenuous hopes of discovering a treasure which, as adults, we know probably does not exist? Is it the adventure? Is it the escapism to a different place and time? Is it the eternal hope that the treasure just might exist, and we might be the lucky one to discover it? The answer is probably a combination of all these factors, plus the fact that treasures are occasionally found and highly publicized.
    —Garnet Basque, Lost Bonanzas of Western Canada, Vol. 1 (1990)
    In Jungian terms, taking possession of the "treasure hard to attain" alludes to experiencing individuation—the archetype of total unity.

    Saturday, February 12, 2011


    This magic word, referring to an intense blaze, appears in Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Black Cat."

    "Poe's prose seemed to hum in the air as the magic word drew near, full of energy and heat, and when it finally came, the breaking of the tension, the satisfaction of the demand, the utterance of conflagration by someone other than himself, Milo sighed . . . audibly." —Matthew Dicks, Unexpectedly, Milo (2010)

    Wednesday, February 9, 2011

    To Make it True

    "Language is courage: the ability to conceive a thought, to speak it, and by doing so to make it true."
    —Salman Rushdie

    Tuesday, February 8, 2011

    Magic in the Courtroom

    In an article appearing in the December 16, 2002 edition of the Chicago Tribune about the conviction of a mentally ill man accused of murder, Ken Armstrong observes that when there is a doubt about the defendant's fitness to stand trial, the judge may order a fitness hearing. However, in order for the judge's ruling to avoid the possibility of being overturned, he or she must specifically invoke the phrase 'bona fide doubt'. He goes on to write, "They're like magic words. They must be uttered."

    Sunday, February 6, 2011


    The Greek Apokalypto is the source of the word apocalypse.

    “He withdrew his wand from a pocket, then waved it in a circular motion in front of the large eye-shaped glyph in the very center of the door. Then, quietly, he spoke the magic word, ‘Apokalypto,’ and four of the many glyphs glowed golden, forming a word.” —Thalia M. Kendall, “Charms and Curses” (2002)

    Thursday, February 3, 2011

    The Workings of the Creative Imagination

    "One's ability to see the magic in the world derives from that ability to recognize and respond to the workings of the creative imagination."
    —Don Lathan, David Almond: Memory and Magic (2006)

    Monday, January 31, 2011

    Ching Ching Gada-Ching Gada-Gada-Ching

    “I picked up the dorje and chanted a bit—nonsense words, Asiatic sounding, insectile, similar to what I recalled of the Secoya language, came into my head and I called them out. ‘Ching! Ching! Gada-ching! Gada-gada-ching!” —Daniel Pinchbeck, “Breaking Open the Head,” excerpted in Book of Lies by Richard Metzger (2003)

    Saturday, January 29, 2011

    Chimay (Instead of Abracadabra)

    In the delightful Swedish short film Istället för abrakadabra ("Instead of Abracadabra"), by Patrik Eklund, the alternative magic word is chimay. The film is available in HD via iTunes.

    (Thanks, Gordon!)

    Thursday, January 27, 2011

    Nothing Comes from Nothing

    "A little bit of one story joins onto an idea from another, and hey presto, . . . not old tales but new ones. Nothing comes from nothing."
    —Salman Rushdie

    Tuesday, January 25, 2011

    The Left-Hand Path of Stage Magic

    Here's a link to the talk we gave at the Magic & Meaning conference last October, with subtitles for the hard of hearing. The talk is entitled "The Left-Hand Path of Stage Magic":

    Monday, January 24, 2011

    I Do

    "The power of words lies in their being able to transport us into different landscapes, different worlds. Thus a novel turn of phrase may 'lift' us – taking us 'out of ourselves.' While a conventional phrase, consecrated and hallowed by ceremony and precedent, can put us into a new life: 'I do," says the bridegroom and he steps anew into life as a married man." —Philosophy and Organization (2007)

    Friday, January 21, 2011

    The Power of Suggestiveness

    "The power of words lies in their suggestiveness rather than in their direct expression." —Herbert Antcliffe, Living Music

    Tuesday, January 18, 2011

    Enchantment Enough

    "Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough."
    —Salman Rushdie

    Saturday, January 15, 2011


    In Lines of Power/Limits of Language (1991), Gunnar Olsson ruminates on the power of language, and we were instantly enchanted by his use of the word "abcdef-mindedness." He notes:
    Modern theories often imply that the power of words lies in other words. Signs are thought to embrace other signs. Signs copulate. Signs materialize. Word turns to body, body to word, and eventually into a marching army of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorfeces.

    Wednesday, January 12, 2011

    Simple Words

    Maybe there was something magic in those simple words, "I'm sorry."

    Maybe there was something magic in those simple words, "It's all my fault."

    Maybe there was, and maybe there wasn't. But they say that as soon as the old King spoke them, the sun began to shine and fight its way through the storm. They say that the falling ooblek blobs grew smaller and smaller and smaller.

    They say that all the ooblek that was stuck on all the people and on all the animals of the Kingdom of Didd just simply, quietly melted away.

    -- Dr. Seuss, Bartholemew and the Ooblek


    Vladimir Navokov describes relishing a magic word while clambering over wet black rocks at the seaside:

    As I crawl over those rocks, I keep repeating, in a kind of zestful, copious, and deeply gratifying incantation, the English word 'childhood,' which sounds mysterious and new, and becomes stranger and stranger as it gets mixed up in my small, overstocked, hectic mind, with Robin Hood and Little Red Riding Hood, and the brown hoods of old hunchbacked fairies. There are dimples in the rocks, full of tepid seawater, and my magic muttering accompanies certain spells I am weaving over the tiny sapphire pools. (Speak: Memory, revised edition, 1967)

    Sunday, January 9, 2011

    Boomerang Toomerang Soomerang

    This magic phrase is featured in the television series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

    “‘Lady Elaine, please come back. We miss you!’ ‘Oh, sweet music to my ears,’ said Lady Elaine, and then King Friday could hear her saying, ‘Boomerang, toomerang, soomerang!’ No sooner had she said the magic words and waved her magic boomerang than she and the Museum-Go-Round were right back in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe where they belonged.” —Fred Rogers, Mister Rogers Talks With Parents (1983)

    Friday, January 7, 2011

    Breath and Sign

    “Language . . . is the real capital in the human sphere. It produces the greatest effect with the least effort (by means of breath and sign).”
    —Hugo Ball, Flight Out of Time: A Dada Diary, 1974. (via DJMisc)

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011

    Sedle Sedelie See, What Are Thee?

    Sedle Sedelie See, What Are Thee? is a phrase used in conjunction with clapping three times for activating a magic slate in Oral Storytelling and Teaching Mathematics by Michael Schiro (2004).

    Monday, January 3, 2011

    Abracadabra, Hocus Pocus, and the Biorhythms of Memes

    Our intriguing magician friend Chris Philpott posed an interesting question about the preponderance of the two most popular magic words:

    So since you're The Man on magic words (and you are, whether you like it or not) I have a question for you. My most recent blog was about trying to find various magical applications for Google's Ngram viewer -- as you may know, this is Google's database of all the millions of books they've digitized -- you can enter a word or phrase and see its relative popularity over hundreds of years. I was putting in various magic-related words (like magicians' names and various magic tricks) when I decided to compare the relative popularity of two well-known magic words, Abracadabra and Hocus Pocus. I discovered the word Abracadabra had a huge surge in popularity in the 1920s (comparable to the word Wizard in the 1990s) -- I suspect there's a reason for the surge (probably as clear as J. K. Rowling's influence on the word Wizard), but I can't think what it would be. Any thoughts?

    Chris, there are actually two very different answers to your question about abracadabra's surge in the 1920s.

    Here's our first answer: What we see when presented with a chart comparing word density over time from the Google Books scanspace is both something and nothing at all. It's certainly something because we can perceive it, i.e. the charts dazzle us with their jagged edges and numerous nodes, suggesting the compilation of many data. However, the trends that they argue are circular, based as they are only upon the tiny subset of books which Google has scanned from the periods under consideration. If we had it on reliable word that Google had scanned, say, 95% of all extant publications, we should still consider word density measurements statistically insignificant considering that the missing 5% might contain 95% of the contemporary appearances of "abracadabra" in print. Moreover, Google cannot estimate the readership of its catalog, which would be necessary to make any evaluative claims about the familiarity of a word or phrase in common culture or parlance, which is really what the word density charts are attempting to demonstrate. Words used by authors in printed publications which survived until 2010 are not, by themselves, particularly significant. The field of statistics is famous for its bold sleights of hand. Most any contention can be illustrated by a sufficiently culled data set and evaluative methodology. Google's scanned word data are of course too fun not to keep playing with, but we must always bear in mind their inherent balderdash.

    Here's our second answer: The rise of "abracadabra" in 1920s is the exhalation of a meme's biorhythm. Decades later, the "wizard" meme began its exhalation, and J.K. Rowling rode the wave. We can't even say that Rowling buoyed the wave -- she is merely part and parcel of a grand expansion cycle.

    Chris responds:

    I'm not sure I'm 100% with you on J.K. Rowling -- certainly she rode some kind of wave but I think her talent was a wave generator of its own. I suspect if she had called Harry a "mage", then instead of showing The Wizards of Waverly Place, The Disney Channel would now be showing The Mages of Mulberry Lane. Writers are notorious copycats (though the demands of the marketplace tend to accentuate this weakness).

    Indeed, Chris, one definition of "meme" is an expression that can be copycatted. (The Greek root is mimema: that which can be mimicked or imitated). Without discounting Rowling's achievements, let's remember that she didn't coin the word "wizard"; it was already a charming Briticism for "excellent." Just as the common cold spreads one handshake at a time (Richard Dawkins has unsavorily called memes "viruses of the mind"), human culture spawns. Rowling, bless her heart, is simply one node of the complex informational network that enables the "wizard" meme to spread and thrive.

    Saturday, January 1, 2011


    "Prestoappearo," I said, making a few complex passes with my hands to indicate that magical words alone were not powerful enough to do the trick of summoning the waiter to our side.

    "Did you learn that method of invocation from your days—and nights—with the Gypsy woman?" she asked.

    "That and many other secrets," I said, "but I'm bound by powerful oaths not to reveal them."

    —Frederic Tuten, Self Portraits: Fictions