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Deep Aspects of Magic Words

A Special Reverence for the Mystery

Bird illustration

Every word is magic, a story achieved through will.
—Rochelle Lynn Holt, “Take Nothing for Granted,” Bless the Day (1998)

If intoned in the proper spirit, any word can be a magic word.  In The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life (1997), Thomas Moore notes that “we may evoke the magic in words by their placement, . . . rhyme, assonance, intonation, emphasis, and, as [mythologist James] Hillman suggests, historical context.”  Even the mundane connotations of the words we use depend frequently on the many details of their packaging.  The more essential the responsibilities we intend for a given word, the more we depend on the magic of its presentation.  A “key” word should enjoy a flourish as it is revealed.  We should draw it forth like a prestidigitator who, with great drama, produces an egg from his mouth.

“Historical context” may seem like a peculiar attribute to group with the elements of pronunciation and the techniques of poetry.  But historical context is a fundamental property of any word, and can be a heavy determinant of its potential impact.  As Thomas Armstrong explains, “In a sense each word in the English language rides upon the waves of history.  It represents the outcome of an evolutionary process that has its origins in archaic languages and at each step in history underwent a refining process in its spelling, pronunciation, and meaning until it reached its present status in the dictionary (which is still ‘in progress.’)”1

Commonplace Words with Magical Connotations

A great many “commonplace” words—i.e. words that the editor of a dictionary of magic words respectfully regrets that he will be unable to include—come standard with a special spark of their own.  Literature, folklore, and even advertising are replete with examples of commonplace words that are rich with “magical” connotations.  Take for example the word Paris.  For many people who reside outside the City of Lights but within the sphere of Western culture, Paris instantly conjures images of romance.  “The magic word Paris drew them on,” writes Barbara W. Tuchman.2  Similarly, the old name for China, Cathay, conjures up an exotic, faraway land of spices and silks, while the Riviera is “full of aspirations of elegance [and] excitement.”3  For author M.M. Kaye, “Zanzibar is one of those names that possess a peculiar, singing magic in every syllable; like Samarkand or Rajasthan, or Kilimanjaro.”4  In The Story of Mankind (1921), Hendrik Willem Van Loon speaks of people “forever under the spell of this magic word ‘Rome.’”

Place names are indeed among the words most often imbued with primal, powerful connotations.  (For no matter how sophisticated the implied glamour of the word Paris, our attraction to this magic word is the product of primitive emotions.)  But this magic is by no means limited to place names, and we have only to toss out a few choice words like birthday and romance and home to demonstrate this.  Discussing the songs of Hoagy Carmichael (and his collaborating lyricists), author William Zinsser identifies what he calls “magical words” with powerful connotations:

  • moonlight
  • Wabash
  • sycamore
  • ’possum
  • oleander
  • rhubarb
  • veranda
  • buttermilk
  • old mill
  • watermelon

Zinsser explains: “They reach us not only through the eye, ear and nose but through two even more powerful transmitters: memory and yearning for the simplicities of yesterday.”5  The effect of the magic words on this short list comes from a symbiosis of sense and sound.  And, not surprisingly, every one of them has a musical cadence.  Even without their ready-made nostalgia, the syllables are fun to say.

Evocative song lyrics are known for their power to inspire sentiment, singing along, out-of-context quotation and even parody . . . but words don’t have to be associated with songs to similarly intoxicate.  Author Amy Hirshberg Lederman confesses, “As a little girl I would whisper words to myself just to hear the sounds of them; magical words like canopy, arithmetic and Ethiopia.”6

Stephen King recounts his personal story of two powerful words and a litany of historical figures that capture a child’s imagination:

[T]wo magic words [were] glittering and glowing like a beautiful neon sign; two words of almost incredible power and grace; and these two words were pioneer spirit.  I and my fellow kids grew up secure in this knowledge of America’s pioneer spirit—a knowledge that could be summed up in a litany of names learned by rote in the classroom.  Eli Whitney.  Samuel Morse.  Alexander Graham Bell.  Henry Ford.  Robert Goddard.  Wilbur and Orville Wright.  Robert Oppenheimer.7

In one way or another, these American pioneers all embodied the spirit of a world-shaking word that encompasses a plethora of possibilities: revolution. “The magic word ‘revolution’ made people hopeful, happy, and ready to embrace each other.”8  In its political sense, the call of revolution draws on a desire for freedom that is in some ways analogous to the beckoning horizons that infuse pioneers with their own revolutionary aspirations (be they spatial, technological, or intellectual).

Freedom and its synonym liberty provide further examples of words that have massive clout in both political and other arenas.  “Liberty!  A magic word, a word full of feeling, a sentiment for which millions have laid down their lives.”9  A concept deemed to be worth dying for is, by the lights of an underlying ideology, recognized as accordingly life-enhancing.  And the concept’s power to rally and inspire always depends on the words that succinctly and evocatively package this ideology.  For example, at the risk of his own life, Pope John Paul II visited Soviet-occupied Czestochowa, Poland, where he defiantly “validated the magic word that he used over and over again: solidarity!”10

Magicians’ Exalted Words

A magician’s entire patter could no doubt be described as “magic words.”  But in this book we dedicate attention to those words spoken with a special reverence for the Mystery—those enigmatic words and phrases, not usually employed in everyday discourse or conversation, which invoke the powers of creation and destruction when something is to appear out of thin air or to disappear back into the great void.  Too often dismissed as “meaningless gibberish,” such magic words are, on the contrary, rich in meaning for those initiated into their significance.  And unlike computer-generated gibberish, for example—which typically prompts nothing deeper than shoulder-shrugging or hair-tearing—the sacred vocabulary of mystery-makers has always affected listeners in profound (if indescribable) ways.

The key to this paradoxical resonance of mysterious words among the uninitiated—those, that is, to whom their meanings are not understood—may be that the words’ meanings, though obscure to the listener, possess an implicit profundity that is transmitted through its sounds and cadences.  “People are struck by something and yet they don’t really seem to know what it is,” music critic Robert Shelton observes.  “That’s always been the case with the most acute and exalted poetry.  There are lines of Shakespeare like this, in which you don’t have to [understand] . . . to be struck by the magic of words.”11

Every magician knows that even young children are deeply moved by magic words.  This makes sense, when we consider how attuned they are to the magic of words in general: writing teacher Deena Metzger describes a three-year-old pupil who “knew the magic of words; she knew that words could create magic, that they were magic.  She knew that they could create worlds, could describe worlds, explore worlds, and also be the bridge between one world and another.”12

If magic words can inspire awe even among those who do not understand them, then why has a classic, time-tested magic word like abracadabra become “a very tired cliché” to such professional magicians as David Pogue, author of Magic for Dummies?13  Composer and philosopher David Rothenberg suggests a convincing answer: whenever words are tossed out without the proper feeling, they “[take] revenge by becoming hokey as hell.”14  Consider this advice from scholar Phillip Cooper:

If words are going to be used, they should be meant.  Words of power work because the person puts feeling, belief, and imagination into those words.  Nonmagic words—the vocabulary of the human race—hinder real communication. . . . Magic words emanate from the heart.15

The rich heritage of magic words need not fade away,16 and certainly no magician should cringe over the terms of his art, much less turn a deaf ear to his sonorous legacy.  This book seeks to reach deep into the glimmering treasure-chest of magic words and reinstate dignity to a dusty, subsidiary treasury—the little jewel box full of terms that have lost their sparkle over the years.  It also seeks to celebrate and codify the new magic words that magicians are, with a wave of a wand or the tip of a hat, adding to the lexicon every day.  Just as the Russian poet Andrei Bely “enthused over nothing less than the literal magic of words and urged that the force of primitive incantations be recreated”17 in poetry, this dictionary is testament to the magic of words and urges magicians to reinvest their incantations with that primitive power everyone remembers at the deepest level.

  1. Seven Kinds of Smart (1993)
  2. Guns of August (1962)
  3. Barrie Kerper, Provence (2001)
  4. Death in Zanzibar (1959)
  5. Easy to Remember (2000)
  6. To Life! (2004).  Novelist Pete Hamill has his own mesmerizing list: “Magic words.  Europe.  Steeples.  The Vatican.  Japan.  Horses.  Hallways.  Pigeons.  Jeeps” (Snow in August [1998]).  So, too, does Audre Lorde: “Carriacou, a magic name like cinnamon, nutmeg, mace” (Zami [1982]).
  7. Danse Macabre (1981)
  8. Edward P. Gazur, The March of Time (2004)
  9. Dale Carnegie, How to Develop Self-Confidence and Influence People by Public Speaking (1991)
  10. Virgilio Levi, John Paul II: A Tribute in Words and Pictures (1999).  On the opposite end of the revolutionary spectrum is the concept of meekness: “Humility—that is the magic word” (Ben Hogan, Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf [1985]).
  11. No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan (1986)
  12. Quoted in Awakening at Midlife by Kathleen A. Brehony (1997)
  13. Pogue claims “You could probably think of something funnier and more entertaining [than abracadabra] without even trying” (Magic for Dummies [1998]).
  14. The Book of Music and Nature: An Anthology of Sounds, Words, Thoughts (2001)
  15. Esoteric Magic and the Cabala (2002)
  16. As Roland Barthes has said, “These words, whose magic is dead for us, can be renewed” (The Rustle of Language [1986]).
  17. Thomas Seifrid, The Word Made Self: Russian Writings On Language, 1860-1930 (2005)

next chapter » “The Vocabulary of Ritual”

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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