Magic Words: A Dictionary
Upmanship Tricks: Secrets of One-Upping Magicians
The Pencil Witch
Seance Parlor Feng Shui
The Care and Feeding of a Spirit Board
Divination By Punctuation
Heirs to the Queen of Hearts: Tracing Magical Genealogy
How to Believe in Your Elf
The Skeleton Key of Solomon
The One Minute Mystic
The Egyptian Secrets in Your Name
The Original Cloudbuster (iOS App)
Oracle of the Two-Fold Gods
The Young Wizard's Hexopedia
Of Feeding & Caring For Sheet Ghosts
ESP Symbols: An Entire Language For Psychic Spies?
Of Drinking in Remembrance of the Dead
Nostradamus Predicted Your Next Diet
How to Hoodoo Hack a Yearbook
Magic Archetypes
Astragalomancy: A Loaded Guide
The JINX Companion
Machinarium Verbosus
A Field Guide to Identifying Unicorns by Sound
The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine
Trump L'Oeil: Tarot of Portmeirion
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Hocus Pocus Is No “Mumbo Jumbo”

Magic words may be even more meaningful than ordinary ones.
—Tore Janson, A Natural History of Latin (2004)

The root of the word “grammar” is “grimoire” . . . Language is a book of spells.
—William A. Covino, Magic, Rhetoric, and Literacy (1994)

Magic words, to use the colorful phraseology of diarist Anaïs Nin, are like fugitives from a subtle world of fairy tales and dreams, “beyond the law of gravity [and] chaos.”  They comprise a mysterious language “which is shadowy and full of reverberations” and deep in meaning.  They catch the essence of “what we pursue in the night dream, and which eludes us, the incident which evaporates as we awake.”1  They establish a sacred space where miracles can occur.  And of course they trigger transformations.  “‘Magic words’ . . . immediately lead to action and transform reality.”2

Medieval conjurors first began using exotic words to “give their performances an air of authentic secret knowledge.”3  Whether they employed pseudo-Latin phrases, nonsense syllables, or esoteric terms from religious antiquity, these magicians were doing far more than merely adding a bit of enigmatic audio to their visuals.4  They were enhancing their specific illusions with a universal mystery: language as an instrument of creation.

Ancient-sounding words project an aura of tradition, of “‘old wisdom’ handed down through generations.”5  It’s little wonder that the archetypical depiction of a magician involves the utterance of antiquated words, in addition to the grand gestures that impart a larger-than-life dimension to his activities.6  And because archaic magic words necessarily predate a magician’s own life, they point to the existence of a “transcendent” realm7 beyond the logic and laws of our ordinary world.

The world of the past is always mysterious to those too young to recall it.  We can also assume that people are more likely to accept the amazing if it is associated with a context other than their own.  It is no accident that fantastic tales are often introduced as having happened “once upon a time” or “long ago and far away.”  “[I]t does not matter whether this archaism is genuine or fake” as long as members of the audience experience themselves “as participating in something extended far beyond their own life.”8  “Knowledge of such special words and languages enables the magician to communicate with [and activate] elements belonging to [sacred] space.”9  And when the magician intones such words he transforms any parlor, theatre, municipal arena—or even the whiskey-stained surface of a rickety card table—into a sacred space primed for the extraordinary.

There are profound truths in that old cliché of a magician pulling a rabbit out of an empty hat with the magic word abracadabra.  Almost everyone recognizes the image.  But what relatively few people know is that our stereotypical magician is speaking an ancient Hebrew phrase that means “I will create with words.”10  He is making something out of nothing, echoing that famous line from Genesis: “Let there be light, and there was light.”  Only in this case, the magician’s venue being already equipped with light, the magic is applied toward the creation of rabbits—and perhaps a sensational flash of supplementary illumination, in the form of fire.

The magic word, whether it be abracadabra or another at the magician’s disposal, resonates with the audience because there is an instinctive understanding that words are powerful, creative forces.  “The word has always held an ancient enchantment for humans,” says scholar Ted Andrews.  “It hints of journeys into unseen and unmapped domains.”11  No wonder it has been said that “all magic is in a word.”12

The inherent enchantment of the word is of course what gives literature its magical influence.  In 1865, scholar Thomas Babington Macaulay examined what makes the poetry of Milton so magical, and his conclusions are most appropriate to magic words in general:

His poetry acts like an incantation.  Its merit lies less in its obvious meaning than in its occult power.

Moving from the sublime to the sublimely ridiculous, one could perhaps make an analogous argument regarding the evocative nonsense of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”—the words of which are as compelling as they are meaningless.  But Macaulay goes on:

There would seem, at first sight, to be no more in his words than in other words.  But they are words of enchantment.  No sooner are they pronounced than the past is present and the distant near.  New forms of beauty start at once into existence, and all the burial-places of the memory give up their dead.13

Throughout the various discussions of magic words in this dictionary, we will explore exactly how and why they conjure the mystique and romance of the past and the glittering promises of the future.

There is a marvelous discussion of sacred language in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel House Made of Dawn (1966) by N. Scott Momaday, in which words are equated with sleight-of-hand.  Momaday speaks of his Kiowa Indian grandmother teaching him how to “listen and delight” through her storytelling.  With her words, she took him “directly into the presence of her mind and spirit.”  As he explains, “[S]he was taking hold of my imagination, giving me to share in the great fortune of her wonder and delight.  She was asking me to go with her to the confrontation of something that was sacred and eternal.  It was a timeless, timeless thing.”  For his grandmother, “words were medicine; they were magic and invisible.  They came from nothing into sound and meaning.”  As in Genesis, the Kiowa creation story begins with something happening in the nothingness.  “There was a voice, a sound, a word—and everything began.”

Let us apply Momaday’s discussion directly to the art of a magician by positing a few questions:

  • Does not a magician want his audience to “listen and delight” in his performance?
  • Does not a magician want to draw an entire audience into his presence?
  • Does not a magician wish to take hold of people’s imaginations and help them to share in the awe and wonderment?
  • Does not a magician wish to present a timeless mystery?

By speaking a magic word, a magician most certainly encourages his audience to “listen and delight” as he encompasses them in his presence, takes hold of their collective imagination, and allows them to share in the “wonder.”  By uttering his magic word, a magician invites the audience to accompany him in confronting something “sacred and eternal . . . a timeless thing,” as Momaday puts it.  And when he produces the magic syllables for all to hear, a magician makes every member of the audience an active participant in the miracle.  For “in the world of magic, the Word creates.”14

  1. Anaïs Nin, Fire: From ‘A Journal of Love’: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1934-1937 (1995)
  2. Anthony Olszewski, “When Baraka Blows His Horn” (2004)
  3. Paul Kriwaczek, In Search of Zarathustra: The First Prophet and the Ideas That Changed the World (2003)
  4. Needless to say, a magician’s patter can serve to distract, for “We get mesmerized by magic words” (Dale Mathers, An Introduction to Meaning and Purpose in Analytical Psychology [2002]).
  5. Jesper Sorensen, Magical Rituals and Conceptual Blending
  6. (2002)
  7. Jesper Sorensen, Magical Rituals and Conceptual Blending
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. David Aaron, Endless Light: The Ancient Path of Kabbalah (1998).  See the entry on abracadabra for additional interpretations.
  11. Simplified Qabala Magic (2003)
  12. Alphonse Louis Constant (Eliphas Levi), The Key of the Mysteries (1861)
  13. Critical and Historical Essays, quoted in Nets of Awareness: Urdu Poetry and Its Critics by Frances W. Pritchett (1994)
  14. Gahl Sasson, A Wish Can Change Your Life: How to Use the Ancient Wisdom of Kabbalah to Make Your Dreams Come True (2003).  Howard Rheingold writes that “We create the world every day when we utter words.  Yet we are rarely aware of this awesome act.  The power of words is woven so tightly into our daily lives that we hardly ever take time to marvel at it.  Our ancestors knew, though: It is no accident that many of the world’s religious scriptures assert that the universe was created by a word” (They Have a Word for It [2000]).  Migene Gonzalez-Wippler provides an example: “The Kabbalah has a fascinating story to tell on the creation of the world by sound.  It says that when God decided to create the universe He was uncertain as to which letter he would use to begin creation.  All the letters of the Hebrew alphabet came to God in one long line and each pleaded with Him to use it, naming and vastly exaggerating all its wonderful qualities.  God listened to all of them thoughtfully, and finally decided on the letter Beth, which means house or container.  With the power of the letter Beth God ‘contained’ the unmanifested universe and created the entire cosmos” (The Complete Book of Spells, Ceremonies and Magic [1978]).

next chapter » “A Special Reverence for the Mystery”

About the Author

Craig Conley is a magic enthusiast and scholar.  Recognized by Encarta as “America’s most creative and diligent scholar of letters, words and punctuation,” his intensive and eccentric research has led him to compile a true masterwork entitled Magic Words: A Dictionary.  He has also authored One-Letter Words: A Dictionary, among other strange and unusual lexicons, and is a regular columnist for Pentacle magazine.  Conley’s ideas are often decades ahead of their time.  He invented the concept of the “virtual pet” in 1980, fifteen years before the debut of the popular “Tamagotchi” in Japan.  His virtual pet, actually a rare flower, still thrives and has reached an incomprehensible size.

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