​Abracadabra – it’s all hocus-pocus


Sue de Groot has probably covered this in her estimable Sunday Times Lifestyle column, but there is always more to be said about onomatopoeia. Not the ordinary old onomatopoeia, in which words mimic a non-linguistic sound (cows moo, for instance), but the words that mimic other, non-sense-making words.

Take abracadabra, to begin alphabetically. The word is used as a magician’s flourish, the casting of a spell (and is popular among children). Some dictionaries say its synonyms are hocus-pocus and mumbo jumbo. Thus abracadabra can be a highly charged piece of verbal magic, or it can be an entirely meaningless sound. Could it be both?

Much speculation exists on the origins of abracadabra, including the notion that it is a corruption of the Hebrew evra k’divra, meaning “I speak, therefore I create” — this is the spell business, imitating the creator God of Genesis, who speaks the world into being. There’s also the idea that it is derived from the Aramaic avad k’davra, meaning “it has perished like the plague”, so it’s a death spell.

This idea was exploited by JK Rowling in the Harry Potter books but it turns out to have no historical validity, being based on a confusion of Hebrew and Aramaic. (As we know from spooky tales such as those told in Penny Dreadful, Aramaic is the mother tongue of demons and devils generally.)

Mosaic magazine’s columnist Philologos wonders whether abracadabra has Jewish origins and decides probably not.

The oldest reference to it is in the collection of medical precepts by Serenus, physician to the Roman emperor Caracalla (who died in 217 CE). He recommends the use of abracadabra, written on an amulet in a special triangular cryptogram, as a treatment for colds and fever, so it was the Grand-Pa Headache Powder of its day. It’s not hard to see how a talismanic spell-word could become a kind of summary word for all the spells magicians would like to cast.

Then there’s hocus-pocus, also defined as a conjurer’s formula, or a description of trickery or legerdemain. Its earliest mention is in about 1630, when Hocas Pocas is the name given to a travelling magician or juggler. The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology claims hocus-pocus is “very likely” to be “a perversion of the phrase from the [Catholic] Mass, Hoc est corpus meum, ‘This is my body’ ”. So, in Christian terms, it’s blasphemous too.

Why hocus-pocus has a hyphen and isn’t simply one word nobody explains.

Nor can anyone say why mumbo jumbo is two words, not one. Perhaps it has something to do with its alleged African origin, recorded in 1738: it’s an idol, it seems, worshiped by the, er, heathen.

Chambers says it may be a corruption of the Mandinka words mama, for ancestor, and dyumbo, meaning a pompom-wearer. Chambers does not explain the pompom-wearing but Merriam-Webster says it derives from the masked dancers of Mandinka ritual.

Maybe it’s just gobbledegook. Or poppycock. Or even codswallop.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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