You Are Here:
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
next chapter » “A Special Reverence for the Mystery”