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