August 28, 2015

Words of the Month - Say the Magic Word

        Today’s selection of words are magic: incantations that summon mysterious powers and set spells in motion.  Nowadays they’re all considered rather childish and funny, but they come from a variety of original sources.  And once again we have a lot of interesting etymological theories, with a lot of question marks to go with them.

hocus-pocus - Dating from the early seventeenth century as a magical formula used in conjuring, the word was apparently first a stage name used by “jugglers” or magicians.  It may be a corruption of the sacramental blessing from Catholic Mass “Hoc est corpus…”  Support for this theory comes from the equivalent phrases in other European languages, which also appear to be corruptions of elements of Catholic ritual.  But it may derive instead from the pseudo-Latin phrase “Hax pax max Deus adimax,” also used as a magic formula.  Or it may be from “Ochus Bochus,” a Norse magician and demon of folklore.  Or perhaps it was just random nonsense, with the full phrase given in 1656 as “Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo.”  In any case, it seems to have been made up by performers with no belief in actual magical powers.

mumbo-jumbo - First used in 1738 and alleged to be the name of an idol worshipped in Africa, the phrase may or may not come from the Mandingo name Maamajomboo described in the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1803.  By English speakers this phrase came to be used to mean “an object of senseless veneration or a meaningless ritual.”  As a word in English, therefore, it was never intended to be taken seriously by magician or audience, and is indicative of magic that we assume to be false.

alakazam - Although first seen in variant forms (particularly alagazam) as early as 1881, it isn’t until 1902 that it appears as part of a magical incantation.  (The full phrase, quoted in the Baltimore Sun, is “Alakazam Bazazza Ki!  Hickory Dickory Dock.  Omega Om Pi?  O Donnerwetter hoch!”  Not very convincing!)  Its primary sense appears to have been simply to sound like a word  “in an unspecified foreign language, with the intention of creating an air of exoticism and mystery.”  It has been noted that it sounds like it could derive from the Arabic phrase al qasam meaning “oath,” which is very appealing, but has no substantiation.  Most likely the Arabic sound of “ala” is simply due to the fact that there was quite a fashion at the time for “the mystical East.”

Open, sesame! - Speaking of the mystical East, this phrase comes, as you probably know, from the story of Ali Baba in the Arabian Nights.  Its first appearance is in Antoine Galland’s Les Mille et une nuits from 1704-17, whence it was translated into English.  Interestingly, Galland is the one who added the story when he first translated the story collection One Thousand and One Nights, so although he may have heard it from a storyteller in Syria, no earlier form of the story has been found.  So, why sesame?  Unknown, of course, but possibilities include a rare literary word in Arabic that’s the same sound as sesame (simsim in Arabic) but which means “gate.”  Or a reduplication of the Hebrew sem meaning “name," 
thus being a kabbalistic reference to God.  Or that certain Babylonian magic practices made use of sesame oil.  Or who knows what.  In any case, Ali Baba’s dim brother takes the meaning at face value and, when he can’t remember the password, guesses various other grains: “Open, barley!  Open, chick-peas!”  This would presumably be even funnier to the tale’s original audience if indeed there were some particular magical significance to the word sesame.

shazam - Apparently invented in 1940 by Bill Parker for the Captain Marvel comic series. Shazam was explained as an acronym of the first initials of various powerful figures: Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury.  In the comic its utterance turned our Ordinary Guy into our Hero, and it soon became used as an exclamation at a sudden and surprising change or occurrence.

presto - Going all the way back to the 1590s as part of conjuring patter, it comes from Italian for “quick, quickly.”  Now it’s often used in combinations such as “Hey presto,” and “Presto-chango.”  Interestingly, the same word was borrowed into English again as a musical notation, but not until about 1683.

abracadabra - I’ve saved the best for last, because this is the only one of our words with genuine magical powers.  (Or at least, it was long believed to have power.)  It’s also the oldest, dating all the way back to the third century CE in a book by the physician to the Roman emperor Caracalla.  Doctor Serenus Sammonicus prescribed the word inscribed on an amulet to cure malaria and other lethal diseases.  It may relate to other words of power such as abraxas, abrasax, and ablanathanalba, which were popularized by the Basilidian Gnostics in the second century CE.  In any case, it was still in use in 1666 when some Londoners posted the word as an amulet on their doorways in an attempt to ward off the plague.  And yet oh, how the mighty are fallen by 1982’s song by the Steve Miller Band, “Abra abracadabra.  I wanna reach out and grab ya…”

[Pictures: Cassim trapped in the Thieves’ cave, illustration by Earle Goodenow from The Arabian Nights, 1946;
Captain Marvel, illustration by ?, 1940? (Image from the Mary Sue);
Abracadabra amulet form, (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

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