Magic Words

The first magic word I learned as a small child was Abracadabra.

I associated it with stage magic, unaware that the incantation dated to the third century. Roman emperor Caracalla recommended that it be worn as an amulet to keep diseases away. It seems to have been a popular charm all during the Middle Ages, though it was out of favor by the time Increase Mather dismissed it as bereft of power. Increase Mather (1639 to 1720), was a major figure in the history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Cotton Mather s dad. Daniel Defoe, of Robinson Crusoe fame (1660 to 1731) said he wished Londoners would stop posting the word on doorways during the Great Plague of London as it was useless agass against sickness.

Alakazam, another word associated with stage magic, may have its roots in an Arabic incantational phrase, Al Qsam, meaning oath. It has also been traced to a Hindu word meaning flawless. Among countless variations is Alakazot, used by the Wizard of Id  in the comic strip of the same name.

Hocus Pocus may be derived from an ancient language; it is sometimes spoken by magicians when bringing about some sort of change. The Anglican prelate, John Tillotson, wrote in 1694, that, in all probability, it originated from a corruption (or parody) of Roman Catholic liturgy containing the phrase Hoc est corpus meum, meaning “This is my body.” Others speculate that Hocus Pocus derived from the Welsh term Hovea Pwca, a hoax perpetrated by a hob-goblin or will o’ the wisp. Called a Pooka, this creature was a shape-shifter whose name recurs throughout Europe as a name of the devil, Ochus Bachus.

Open Sesame is the magical phrase in the story, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves in the collection of stories entitled, One Thousand and One Nights. The phrase opens the mouth of a cave in which forty thieves have hidden a treasure. There are numerous theories about its origin; some think it may be a kabbalistic word representing the Talmudic aem-aam·/m (“shem-shamayim”), ‘name of heaven’

Among more recent magic words are Alla Peanut Butter Sandwiches, used by The Amazing Mumford on Sesame Street. Though Mumford has some great chops, his tricks often go awry often at the hands of Grover, his overly eager assistant.

Bippity, Boppity, Boo is the spell used by Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother in the animated Disney movie. She uses it to transform Cinderella from scullery maid to belle of the royal ball.

By speaking the word, Shazam! a poor newsboy with a crutch is transformed into the comic book superhero, Captain Marvel, with flying abilities, red cape and rippling muscles.
Shazam! is an acronym that summoned the powers of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury and is also the name of the wizard who imparted the spell.

There have always been magic words in fiction especially in children s literature but J.K. Rowling really opened the floodgates in her Harry Potter series.

Incantations taught at Hogwarts sound a lot like Latin though they are not proper Latin nor are they grammatically correct in any language. But they are fun. Expelliarmus (pronounced eks-pel-ee-ar-mes) disarms an adversary, causing a weapon to fly out of reach. Incendio (in-send-dee-oh) produces a spectacular burst of flames. Muffliato (muf-lee-ah-toh) keeps nearby people from hearing a conversation. Expecto Patronum (eks-pek-toh pe-troh-nem translation: I expect a patron), conjures up a protector.

The Word Hound welcomes your questions, comments & pet words.