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Magic Words: A Dictionary softcover book from Red Wheel

Magic Words: A Dictionary

Magic Words: A Dictionary is a one-of-a-kind resource for magicians and word lovers, exploring the most intriguing magic words and phrases from around the world.  720 essay-style entries touch upon magic words’ multiple meanings, auras of mystery, origins and history, popular variations, amusing trivia, and fascinating examples of usage from literature and popular culture.  Sources range from prominent modern stage magicians to their distant ancestors: the hierophants of ancient Egypt; the high priests, medicine men, sorcerers, and alchemists of the Middle Ages; the necromancers and wizards of legend and fairy tale; and the workers of wonders and miracles throughout history—all performers of their day, seeking to mystify, to enchant, and to entertain.  This dictionary showcases those powerful words that give shape and form to a magician’s ungraspable feats, like a piece of silk, or that conjure up a puzzling new reality, like smoke and mirrors.

Our current fascination with magic words lies in the revival of interest in the art of close-up magic and grand illusions that began in the late twentieth-century and has continued into the twenty-first, fueled by the work of such performers as Lance Burton, David Copperfield, Siegfried & Roy, David Blaine, and Jeff McBride.  Magic words are naturally as old as conjuring itself, echoes of the rhythm and vibration of creative power.  Medieval conjurors first began using exotic words to give their performances an air of authentic secret knowledge.  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.  They were enhancing their specific illusions with a universal mystery: language as an instrument of creation.  A great many magic words have stood the test of time, passed on from master to apprentice, generation through generation, to find expression on the modern stage and street.  These ancient, musical, poetic incantations have a profound—but not necessarily unfathomable—mystique.  From the familiar but oft-perplexing classics like abracadabra, alakazam, hocus pocus, presto-chango, shazam, and sim sala bim, to lesser known gems like the tongue-twisting tirratarratorratarratirratarratum, to whimsical modern inventions like izzy wizzy let’s get busy, these venerable magic words and phrases warrant a serious, scholarly tribute and indeed have earned a place of honor in their own special dictionary.

There is profound meaning in the clichéd image of a magician pulling a rabbit out of an empty hat with the magic word abracadabra.  The magician is speaking an ancient Hebrew phrase that means “I will create with words.”  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 light is a white rabbit and perhaps a flash of fire.  The magic word, whether it be abracadabra or another of the magician’s choosing, 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.”  This dictionary seeks to reinstate dignity to the treasury of magic words that have lost some of their sparkle over the years, as well as to celebrate and codify the new magic words that magicians are adding to the lexicon every day.  This dictionary is testament to the magic of language and urges magicians to reinvest their incantations with that primitive power everyone remembers at the deepest level.  Whether the reader is a professional illusionist, an amateur at sleight-of-hand, or simply a word lover intrigued by the power of language, this dictionary is meant to enlighten and inspire everyone to create pure wonder and awe whenever they speak.

read the introduction online now »
Chapter 1 » “A Tip of the Hat”

NOTE: We have been pleased to offer the entire contents of Magic Words: A Dictionary for free online viewing since 2004.  As of October 2008 we are delighted to offer the dictionary in print by Weiser Books, available from your local bookstore or through online retail channels.


“[A]n impressive work. . . . The ‘take away’ I had from this book has less to do with the amusing words and their definitions, and more to do with a thoughtful consideration of the role of the magic word in my own work.”  —Brad Henderson, MAGIC, The Magazine for Magicians

“I am in awe of the volume and variety of the usages and references discussed: the research seems monumental. . . . Yes, it will not only give you the importance of magic words, the kinds of magic words used under what circumstances, what the public (as expressed through references in literature) thinks about magic words and what are magic words, it will help you understand magic and your relationship to it. Recommended as a very useful resource for those who think and care.”  —Phil Willmarth, Linking Ring Magazine

“. . . No matter how you approach it, Conley has given us a delightful resource that entertains, informs, and inspires. If only more books, especially those for magicians, offered as much.”  Gordon Meyer, author of Smart Home Hacks [Read Full Review]

“A most extraordinary book.”  —Steve Spill, magician and founder of Magicopolis

“Recommended for the incantophile!”  —James Callan, Quiz Quiz Bang Bang

“Craig Conley is as intimately familiar with the magic of words as he is with the words of magic. His masterful, dazzling blend of scholarship and showmanship results in the perfect tribute to this spectacular subject. Professional magicians seeking inspiration, serious researchers seeking insights, and casual readers seeking entertainment will be equally well rewarded by a ride on Conley’s magic carpet.”  Jonathan Caws-Elwitt, playwright

“A brilliant book for fans of magic.  MAGIC WORDS is a must-read for those of us who write about magic.  It starts with a scholarly (and entertaining) essay about the power of words to mystify and dazzle, then includes entries and definitions for magic words humans have used throughout history.  If you’re looking for just the spell to bind your readers to your story, it may well be in this book.  (It’s also a hoot if you enjoy learning things like this: Phblthplbht is a magic word for conjuring an iron will.)”  Martha Brockenbrough, author of It Could Happen To You: Diary Of A Pregnancy and Beyond

“There is magic and dreams do come true.”  Diana Page Jordan, Multi-media Entrepreneur

“Truly words of magic about magic words!”  Bill Wisch, creator of “The Magic Word” program

“This is a great book. Loads of fun to browse through and stimulate understandings and possibilities. . . . fascinating information that is stimulating for the creation of either tricks or presentations, being quite difficult to let go of.”  —Robert Neale, author of The Magic Mirror

“A fascinating piece of scholarship, and an invitation to wonder.”  Bernie DeKoven, author of The Well Played Game

“Too often we forget the real Magic in our lives. Craig Conley is a student of Wonder, and like all true Wonder Experiencers, he is moved to share that. Mr. Conley reminds us to open our eyes, minds, ears and hearts to the Wonder within and without. Those of us who travel along such paths are ever grateful for Those Few who travel with us in spirit. Craig Conley is one of Those Few.”  Kenton Knepper (The Mystic of Magic), author of Wonder Words

“Useful . . . entertaining.”  Taylor Ellwood, author of Pop Culture Magick

“A Magic Masterpiece!”  Magic-Al Garber, creator of “It’s a Magic-Al World!”

“Contains notes on everything from the fractal magic word abacaba-dabacaba to the typographically charged zxcvbnm, and a few more besides.”  Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America

“Wonderful.”  —Graham P. Collins, editor of Scientific American

“Magic can be within your grasp if you take a look at some of these print and web resources. . . . Amateur magicians can learn more about the different magic tricks and magic words that professional magicians use.”  —Evelyn Khoo, The Wizard’s Bookshelf

“A wealth of information for the aspiring magician.”  Spooky Librarians

“Fascinating! A book about the origins of magic words. This will be of interest to those into stage magic as well as occultism.”  Aaron Leitch

“An engrossing resource.”  Neil Tobin, magician

Copyright © 2020 Craig Conley