Abracadabra

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This article is about an incantational word. For other uses, see Abracadabra (disambiguation).

Abracadabra is an incantation used as a magic word in stage magic tricks, and historically was believed to have healing powers when inscribed on an amulet.

Etymology[edit]

The word may have its origin in the Aramaic language, but numerous conflicting folk etymologies are associated with it.

The word Abracadabra may derive from an Aramaic phrase meaning "I create as I speak."[1] This etymology is dubious, however, as אברא כדברא in Aramaic is more reasonably translated "I create like the word."[citation needed] The second lexeme in this supposedly Aramaic phrase must be a noun given the presence of the definite article[citation needed] on the end of the word (it cannot be an infinitive construct, as the infinitive cannot take the definite article). Regardless, this phrase would actually be pronounced ebra kidbara, which is clearly different from abracadabra[citation needed]. However, Semitic languages like Aramaic are not always hard and fast with the assignment of vowels, and abracadabra is similar enough to ebra kidebra, given the tendency of vowels to shift. In the Hebrew language, the phrase translates more accurately as "it came to pass as it was spoken."[citation needed]

"[A]bracadabra may comprise the abbreviated forms of the Hebrew words Ab (Father), Ben (Son) and Ruach A Cadsch (Holy Spirit), though an alternative derivation relates the word to Abraxas, a god with snakes for feet who was worshipped in Alexandria in pre-Christian times."[2] David Pickering's description of the word as an abbreviation from Hebrew is also a false etymology—as he apparently here means Aramaic (בר is Aramaic for "son", it is בן in Hebrew, although בר is an honorific form), nor does he account for the final five letters (i.e., -dabra) in the lexeme.

The word may have originated as a way to remember the alphabet by pronouncing the first letters ABCD... It becomes more pronounceable and easier to remember by adding repetitive vowel "a" or "ra" sounds where there are none and adding an alliteration "bra" at the end. Writing and the alphabet were a form of magic to most people in those times.

History[edit]

The first known mention of the word was in the third century AD in a book called Liber Medicinalis (sometimes known as De Medicina Praecepta Saluberrima) by Quintus Serenus Sammonicus,[3] physician to the Roman emperor Caracalla, who in chapter 51 prescribed that malaria[4] sufferers wear an amulet containing the word written in the form of a triangle:[5]

A - B - R - A - C - A - D - A - B - R - A
A - B - R - A - C - A - D - A - B - R
A - B - R - A - C - A - D - A - B
A - B - R - A - C - A - D - A
A - B - R - A - C - A - D
A - B - R - A - C - A
A - B - R - A - C
A - B - R - A
A - B - R
A - B
A

The power of the amulet, he explained, makes lethal diseases go away. Other Roman emperors, including Geta and Alexander Severus, were followers of the medical teachings of Serenus Sammonicus and may have used the incantation as well.[3]

It was used as a magical formula by the Gnostics of the sect of Basilides in invoking the aid of beneficent spirits against disease and misfortune.[6] It is found on Abraxas stones, which were worn as amulets. Subsequently, its use spread beyond the Gnostics.

The Puritan minister Increase Mather dismissed the word as bereft of power. Daniel Defoe also wrote dismissively about Londoners who posted the word on their doorways to ward off sickness during the Great Plague of London.[7] But Aleister Crowley regarded it as possessing great power; he said its true form is abrahadabra.[8]

The word is now commonly used as an incantation by stage magicians. It is also applied contemptuously to a conception or hypothesis purporting to be a simple solution of apparently insoluble phenomena.

In popular culture[edit]

In comics[edit]

  • Abra Kadabra is the name of a DC Comics villain, who originally uses futuristic technology to create effects that appear magic to present-day people, and later gains actual magic powers.
  • Mr. Kadabra is a member of the 13th floor witches, in Vertigo's Fables comic series and loves the artist formally known as Prince.
  • In Sergio Aragonés' Groo comic series, two witches who are sometimes allies or enemies of Groo are named Arba and Dakarba.
  • In The Wizard of Id comics, the Wizard creates a Frankenstein-like monster known as Abra Cadaver.

In games[edit]

In the Nintendo/Game Freak video game franchise Pokémon, there are three creatures in the same evolutionary chain named Abra, Kadabra, and Alakazam (the third of which is also an alleged magic word used by stage magicians).

In music[edit]

In cinema[edit]

In television[edit]

  • In the Merrie Melodies episode Transylvania 6-5000 (1963 film), Bugs Bunny reads a book entitled 'Magic Words and Phrases' that describes the use of powerful magical words such as 'abracadabra' and 'hocus pocus'

In literature[edit]

The incantation Avada Kedavra is known as the Killing Curse in the Harry Potter novel series. During an audience interview at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 15 April 2004, series author J. K. Rowling had this to say about the fictional Killing Curse's etymology: "Does anyone know where avada kedavra came from? It is an ancient spell in Aramaic, and it is the original of abracadabra, which means 'let the thing be destroyed.' Originally, it was used to cure illness and the 'thing' was the illness, but I decided to make it the 'thing' as in the person standing in front of me. I take a lot of liberties with things like that. I twist them round and make them mine." [9]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Kushner, Lawrence (1998). The Book of Words: Talking Spiritual Life, Living Spiritual Talk. Jewish Lights Publishing. p. 11. ISBN 1580230202. 
  2. ^ Dictionary of Superstitions, David Pickering, Cassell Wellington House, 1995, 1
  3. ^ a b Vollmer, Friedrich. Quinti Sereni Liber Medicinalis. Leipzig: Teubner, 1916, chap. LII, v. 4.
  4. ^ "The Tenacious Buzz of Malaria". The Wall Street Journal. July 10, 2010.
  5. ^ Bartleby
  6. ^  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Abracadabra". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  7. ^ Daniel Defoe. A Journal of the Plague Year. London, Dent, 1911 (1722)
  8. ^ Guiley, Rosemary (2006). "Abracadabra". The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy. Visionary Living Inc. ISBN 0-8160-6048-7. 
  9. ^ J. K. Rowling (2004-08-15). "J K Rowling at the Edinburgh Book Festival". J. K. Rowling Official Site. Archived from the original on 30 April 2011. Retrieved 2011-03-20. 

External links[edit]