Magic Words: A Dictionary

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.

FROSTY 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).

"HOLY COW!"

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 Cat paradox:

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 Prosperity, 1939)

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.

Interestingly, 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.

SMALL CHANGE

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.

PEE-WEE HERMAN

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 Jeannie, 2000).

FROM 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, pentola, bolli.

BRUCE LEE-STYLE

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.

HOLY MOLY

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.

BROCCOLI

Oh! Brocoli,
Oh! Brocoli,
A magic word
is Brocoli!
—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).

UN-BEWITCHING

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

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."


Described 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 and MysteryArts.blogspot.com.


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(geek alert!)

You've crossed your Darrins! Darrin #1 was convinced by Uncle Arthur (doing a practical joke) that he had magic powers, and the words were "Yagazuzy, yagazuzy, yagazuzy zim!" etc.

Darrin #2 was given real magic powers by Samantha's father, Maurice, and that's where the words were "Zolda, pranken, kopeck, lum." Aunt Clara also used those words to try to levitate a teacup. It broke.

(geek off...)
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Shprocket, "open sesame" is widely thought to have been “inspired by the fact that the pods of the sesame plant burst open when the enclosed seeds reach maturity.” The name of the seed is over 4,000 years old and is “one of the few to have entered modern languages from the ancient Egyptian (sesemt).” (From MAGIC WORDS: A DICTIONARY)
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