A is for aardvark, anathema, absinthe, assuage and now, as Karen Jeynes continues our Twelve Thousand Word tour, abracadabra.

What’s the magic word? No, not please, abracadabra. Abracadabra doesn’t really mean anything, being an interjection used to indicate magic is being done. It’s the verbal equivalent of sleight of hand, a trick which causes people to concentrate on what the magician chooses, rather than on what he’s actually getting up to. And it has a ritualistic quality. It’s traditional! Many magicians who choose other words, trying to be “unique”, find their audiences disappointed.

So where does it come from? Many possibilities have been put forward here. It may come from the Aramaic “avda ked vara”, roughly meaning “it will happen as I speak”, or the Hebrew “avra kedavra”, meaning “what is said shall come to pass”. Others claim a Greek origin, from “abrakadabra” – magical formulae written on abraxas stones. Abraxas was a name for the supreme God, and the word was written on triangle shapes and worn around the neck as charms.

Harry Potter fans will have found those Hebrew and Aramaic phrases very familiar, as Rowling used them as inspiration for her killing curse, “Avada Kedavra”. A rather different kind of magic. “Abracadabra” is also a song, and features in this lovely passage from the Devil’s Dictionary which I’ll leave you with:

“By ‘Abracadabra’ we signify an infinite number of things.

‘Tis the answer to What? and How? and Why? And Whence? and Whither? – a word whereby The Truth (with the comfort it brings) is open to all who grope in night, Crying for Wisdom’s holy light.

Whether the word is a verb or a noun is knowledge beyond my reach. I only know that ’tis handed down. From sage to sage, from age to age – An immortal part of speech!

Of an ancient man the tale is told that he lived to be ten centuries old, in a cave on a mountain side. (True, he finally died.) The fame of his wisdom filled the land, for his head was bald, and you’ll understand His beard was long and white and his eyes uncommonly bright.

Philosophers gathered from far and near To sit at his feet and hear and hear, though he never was heard to utter a word But “Abracadabra abracadab, Abracada, abracad, Abraca, abrac, abra, ab!”

‘Twas all he had, ’twas all they wanted to hear, and each made copious notes of the mystical speech, which they published next – a trickle of text in the meadow of commentary. Mighty big books were these, in a number, as leaves of trees; in learning, remarkably – very!

He’s dead, as I said, and the books of the sages have perished, but his wisdom is sacredly cherished. In ‘Abracadabra’ it solemnly rings, like an ancient bell that forever swings. O, I love to hear that word make clear Humanity’s General Sense of Things.”

Karen Jeynes

About Karen Jeynes

Karen Jeynes (@karenjeynes) is a playwright, dramaturg, wordsmith, proponent of the Oxford comma, and collector of words. She has been known to rub her hands with girlish glee on discovering a new one. She experiences high levels of angst over misplaced apostrophes, sometimes having to have a bit of a lie down. She is perilously partial to puns. And also alliteration.


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