Aug 3, 2009
The following is a guest blog by Craig
Conley, author of Magic Words: A Dictionary
If you’ve ever paid a compliment, written a mission statement, stated
an affirmation, made a wish, shouted a command, or said a little prayer,
you’ve used some magic words.
Indeed, magic words aren’t just for stage performers or superstitious
folks. They’re powerful language tools, like blueprints for constructing
reality. With magic words, we define a sacred arena where miracles can
come into play. 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." He is making something
out of nothing, echoing that famous line from Genesis: "Let there
be light, and there was light."
In the course of compiling Magic
Words: A Dictionary, we unearthed a wealth of magical expressions
from comic books, television shows, rock ‘n’ roll, ancient Egyptian scrolls,
and pulp fiction. Here are some of our whimsical favorites:
THE POWER OF PURPLE
The title "Purple One" popularly refers to the artist formerly
known as Prince. But former teen idol and now game show host Donnie Osmond
was a purple one back in the mid-1970′s. Elprup is the word that
Donnie Osmond spoke on The Donnie and Marie Show to transform
into Captain Purple. The word is purple spelled backward.
THE SNOWMAN’S SECRET
Frosty the Snowman’s secret comes to us courtesy of home automation expert
Gordon Meyer, author of Smart Home Hacks. Animovividus Homonivalis
is a pseudo-Latin spell for bringing a snowman to life. The word animo
refers to the life force or soul of the snowman, which is conjured to
vivify with the word vividus. Nivalis means "snowy,"
and homo means "man."
BART SIMPSON’S ZOMBIE SPELL
Zabar, Kresge, Caldor, Wal-Mart is Bart Simpson’s spell for
conjuring zombies, chanted in Matt Groening’s animated series The
Simpsons (Season 4, Episode 64, "Dial Z For Zombies," Oct.
29, 1992). The words are actually names of discount retail markets.
Bart also has another zombie spell: Cullen, Rayburn, Narz, Trebek.
The words are names of game show hosts: Bill Cullen of To Tell the
Truth, Gene Rayburn of Match Game, Jack Narz of Concentration,
and Alex Trebek of Jeopardy.
A SPELL FOR A LA-Z-BOY
The magic word rantorp (a Scandinavian name) changes people
into chairs in the play General Gorgeous by Michael McClure (1982).
Alizebu is a magic word for revealing hidden passages in the
computer game King’s Quest 6 (Sierra Entertainment, 1992). The
word zebu comes from the Tibetan ceba, meaning "hump."
Zebu is a breed of hump-backed India ox. With the Arabic Ali
("by the most high") in front, Alizebu could be translated
as "holy cow."
OOO EEE OOO-AH-AH TING TANG WALLA-WALLA BING-BANG
This phrase is a love spell chanted in the song "Witch Doctor"
by David Seville (1958). "It is a song of unrequited love cured by
the magic incantations of the witch doctor" (Bob McCann, "The
Declension Song," 2003). Diana Winn Levine suggests that ting
tang are the magic words and walla walla bing bang mean
the magic is over.
A CAT IN A HAT
If Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat were a magician, his magic word might be
inspiratus, Latin for the divine "breath" that inspires
creativity. We unearthed a delightful fakir’s incantation that incorporates
the word as it celebrates a Schrödinger’s
Hocus, pocus, inspiratus,
there is a cat in the hat;
hocus, pocus, inspiratus,
there is no cat in the hat.
(Incantation quoted in Lawrence Bruehl’s The Mathematics of Unlimited
PEANUT BUTTER AND SESAME STREET
Abba Zabba recalls the expanse of the alphabet, A (abba) to
Z (zabba), the alpha and omega of creative power. The words appear in
a Captain Beefheart song of the same name (1974). The lyrics are a sort
of nursery rhyme about childhood rituals and seem to suggest that the
primal syllables abba zabba are "song before song before
song." Abba Zabba is also the name of an old-fashioned peanut butter
taffy candy bar.
peanut butter figures into other magic words. A-la Peanut Butter Sandwiches
has appeared in a "Rugrats" comic strip and is the Amazing Mumford’s
magic expression on the Sesame Street television series. The
peanut is like the sesame seed of Open Sesame fame—a spiritual
food which unlocks a doorway to a world of wonders. The pods of peanuts
and sesame plants open to reveal their seeds, just as the wall of rock
opened for the legendary Ali Baba when he said the secret password.
Here’s a magic word that is tailor made for a wishing well. Found in
18th-century Kabbalistic treatises, matba is a magic word for
obtaining small coins. It literally means "bring forth." As
a talisman to be carried in one’s money purse, matba was to be
written on a square of paper.
Mekka-Lekka-Hi, Mekka-Hiney-Ho was popularized by the children’s
television series Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (1986). "One of Pee-wee’s visiting
pals to pop into the Playhouse was in the form of a genie—a disembodied,
turban-topped talking head named Jambi. Always a jokester, Jambi swiveled
his head and worked his magic much to Pee-wee’s rapture; he granted wishes
if Pee-wee chanted along with him" (Stephen Cox, Dreaming of
INSIDE PANDORA’S BOX
Jiggery pokery is action with astonishing results or a clever
deception. It is the name of one of the plagues and misfortunes that was
contained inside Pandora’s box of mythology.
JOHNNY THUNDER’S SECRET
Cei-u (pronounced "say you") is the word that gives
comic book character Johnny Thunder (Flash Comics, 1940) the
power to summon The Thunderbolt (his magical partner who appears as a
puff of pink smoke).
A GHOSTLY NAME
In the folklore of West Cornwall, England, Nomme Domme was a
name that spirit-quellers used to address and obtain power over ghosts.
The name is undoubtedly a corruption of the Latin In Nomine Domini
("In the Name of the Lord"). The name was considered "a
magical word, very likely the spirit’s name among spirits, for old folks
held that they acquire new ones quite different from what they bore when
in mortal bodies" (William Bottrell, Stories and Folk-Lore of
West Cornwall, 1880).
A WATCHED POT NEVER BOILS?
It’s been said that a watched pot never boils, and perhaps that inspired
this Italian magic spell for getting water to bubble: Pentola, pentola,
Exclaimed at the end of a chant, the magic word harrahya could
be likened to the shout of a martial artist delivering a knifehand strike,
focusing power toward an amazing conclusion.
Popularized by the Captain Marvel comics in 1940, Holy Moly
is an expression of wonderment that recalls a magic herb of Greek mythology.
Sporting white flowers and black roots, moly was Hermes’ gift to Odysseus,
to protect against incantations.
MAGIC IN OZ
In the Oz books by L. Frank Baum, it is said that to transform
people and objects, the word pyrzqxgl must be pronounced correctly.
The Munchkin named Bini Aru, who discovered the word, hid away the pronunciation
directions after Princess Ozma decreed that only Glinda could practice
magic in the land.
A magic word
—J.A.H., "The Masonic Password," Freemason’s Magazine
(Aug. 15, 1868)
The incantation quoted above was said in jest, yet it’s not preposterous
that the vegetable broccoli have a magical name. The word derives from
a Latin root, brocchus, meaning "projecting." A simple
definition of a magic word is "a powered projection" (to paraphrase
W. Ong, The Presence of the Word, 1967).
Zolda Pranken Kopeck Lum are the magic words the character Uncle
Arthur teaches Darrin Stephens in the television series Bewitched,
when Darrin is convinced he’s been turned into a Warlock.
Excelsior is a cry of ascendancy, supremacy, mastery, greatness.
It is a charm for gaining the upper hand. The silvery tones of this heart-stirring
magic word "put a soul in every bell / To triumph o’er the powers
of hell—Excelsior!" (Thomas Bracken, "Longfellow,"
Musings in Maoriland, 1890). In his poem "Excelsior,"
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow likened the word to a sigh, an oft-repeated
prayer, the accents of an unknown tongue, and a falling star. Excelsior
is of Latin origin, ex meaning "beyond" and celsus meaning "lofty."
It is typically taken to mean "ever upward."
by Encarta as "America’s most creative and diligent scholar of letters,
words and punctuation," Craig
Conley has also been called a ‘cult hero’ by Publisher’s Weekly.
A former college teacher of writing and literature, he left academia to
pursue his research into one-letter words, magic words and ancient Zen
versions of Rock-Paper-Scissors.
In addition to Magic
Words: A Dictionary
(Weiser Books) and One-Letter
Words, a Dictionary
(HarperCollins), he has written a field guide to identifying unicorns
by sound, a coloring book that requires no crayons, an atlas of blank
maps, and four editions of the textbook Human
Diversity: A Guide for Understanding
. Craig blogs at OneLetterWords.com/weblog
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