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Abracadabra

Q From Speranza Spiratos: Can you shed some magical clarity on the word abracadabra please?

A Let me wave my wand ... Ah, a brief sputter, then nothing. It seems the origin isn’t known for certain.

These days it’s just a joking conjuror’s incantation with no force behind it, like hocus pocus and other meaningless phrases. But the word is extremely ancient and originally was thought to be a powerful invocation with mystical powers.

What we know for sure is that it was first recorded in a Latin medical poem, De medicina praecepta, by the Roman physician Quintus Serenus Sammonicus in the second century AD. It’s believed to have come into English via French and Latin from a Greek word abrasadabra (the change from s to c seems to have been through a confused transliteration of the Greek). Serenus Sammonicus said that to get well a sick person should wear an amulet around the neck, a piece of parchment inscribed with a triangular formula derived from the word, which acts like a funnel to drive the sickness out of the body:

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

However, it seems likely that abracadabra is older and that it derives from one of the Semitic languages, though nobody can say for sure, because there is no written record before Serenus Sammonicus. For what it’s worth, here are some theories:

Fans of the Harry Potter books will know the killing curse, Avada Kedavra, in which J K Rowling seems to have combined the supposed Aramaic source of abracadabra with the Latin cadaver, a dead body.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 9 Jan. 1999
Last updated: 19 Dec. 2005

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-abr1.htm
Last modified: 19 December 2005.