When an old-school magician is about to reveal the seemingly impossible, he will often invite his audience to participate in the revelation by reciting the well-known “magic word” that has long been associated with transformation.
“Now,” says the man in the tuxedo with tails, “we must say the magic word.”
And that word is already on the lips of nearly every member of the crowd.
“Abracadabra,” they intone.
But what does that mean, exactly? It certainly sounds mysterious and rhythmic enough to be a magic word. Strange, how easily it rolls off the tongue despite its foreign feel…
I suspect that I’ll get some hate mail from a few illusionists for sharing what I’m about to disclose, but no matter. (Your enlightenment means so much more to me than their rants of condemnation!)
The earliest, documented use of the word “abracadabra” comes from the Roman imperial advisor Quintus Sammonicus Serenus in the late second century CE. In his only fully surviving work, De Medicina Praecepta, Serenus gives a treatment for ague (acute fever) that features the word etched into an inverted triangular amulet, thus:
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
The late Amram Kehati (PDF) argued that the origin was Hebrew and that it was comprised of three words: ARBA – ACHAD – ARBA, meaning FOUR – ONE – FOUR; which seems to correspond to the prescription by Serenus that the amulet be worn for nine days.
The explanation sounds logical, especially when the word is viewed from right-to-left, in the manner that the Hebrew language is read. However, there remains a troublesome transposition of the C and D. This would have the second of the three conjoined words reading ADACH (or DACHA) rather than ACHAD.
While it’s true that “the magic word” comes from Hebrew, the derivation emerges from a spoken (rather than written) emulation of the original phrasing.
Rabbi Jeffrey Summit relates that the word stems from the Hebrew phrase “abra k’davrah”, meaning, “it came to pass as it was spoken”. This interpretation can also be logically (and historically) connected to the reason why the amulet was prescribed to be worn for nine days.
After the destruction of Jerusalem and the complete desolation of the second Jewish Temple by Roman forces in 70 CE, some prophets of the day turned a scornful eye upon Rome and prophesied against it. Nine years (plus one month and one day) later, the world’s then-greatest empire was rocked by a calamity of biblical proportions: the eruption of Vesuvius, which brought with it the fiery obliteration of the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis and Stabiae.
That tumultuous event deeply affected Serenus (though born about a century after the fact) because he was a passionate devotee of the work of Pliny the Elder. Pliny, the great Roman scholar and physician, perished while attempting a sea rescue of family and friends from Stabiae. This would then also seem to lend significance to the fact that the amulet designed by Serenus is shaped like an inverted volcano — as if to counter the earth’s paroxysmal fever.
In the world of performance magic, however, there’s another translation that might be well-suited, if ironic.
ABRACADABRA can also be broken out as follows:
HA’BRACHA’DAVRAH, meaning, The Blessing Word; or simply,
“The Magic Word”