Updated: Jul 16
Abracadabra is an ancient word that has been around for centuries.
Where did it originate from, what does it mean, and why was it used in magic?
Abracadabra in Hebrew means "I will create as I speak." It was first published in the 2nd century by Serenus Sammonicus as a cure for "fever," known today as malaria. Until the 17th, apothecaries, mystics and healers advocated its effectiveness in curing disease. By the 18th, the word moved from medicine and reappeared in theatrical performances; its original association with magicians is unknown.
But there are a few clues to the word's origin—a perfect mystery for the art form.
The word Abracadabra has become synonymous with magicians, but where did that all start? And what exactly does Abracadabra mean?
In this article, we will look at the fascinating history of the word and why magic practitioners (ancient and modern) use it when performing their tricks and illusions.
Jump to Section:
Why Do Magicians Say Abracadabra?
How Old is Abracadabra?
The word abracadabra has been around for thousands of years.
As far back as the second century (101-200 AD), the term has been used by people who believed it had the power to heal and cure.
It's a belief that has stuck around for over 17 centuries. (Albeit, towards the end, its usage in healing could be defined as quackery)
Who was the First Magician to Use Abracadabra?
The first known use of the Abracadabra by magicians is a mystery.
The exact origins are unclear, but the use of the word Abracadabra likely started in the early 1800s. Some early references point to the first theatrical usage in a performance in 1812 in Rochester, NY, by dramatist and author William Thomas Moncrieff.
However, Moncrieff wasn't a magician. (Fact: William Thomas wasn't even a Moncrieff, he adopted the last name because it was more theatrical.)
Around the 1800s, magicians began using the word in their performances.
Why Magicians Use Magic Words
So, why would magicians start using a magic word like Abracadabra?
Magicians use magic words to help focus their audience's attention and distract or explain something unexplainable.
When combined with a magician's secrets and practice, the words act as psychological misdirection for an audience.
Magicians have used magic words like Hocus Pocus and Presto in their magic shows for hundreds of years, but the tradition has faded chiefly among modern prestidigitators.
Like all disciplines, the art of magic and audience expectations have evolved. In some Las Vegas magicians' showrooms, strobe lights and fireworks have replaced the traditional magic word.
Cue the music and applause. 👏
What Is The True Meaning of Abracadabra?
The word has changed from medical to magical over several centuries, but the intention behind the words has remained the same.
Abracadabra's modern-day definition ranges from "a magical charm or incantation" to "a magic phrase uttered by a stage magician.
How similar is the modern Abracadabra meaning compared to the original?
Early Definitions of Abracadabra:
Abracadabra in Hebrew means "I will create as I speak."
In Aramaic, "Avra kehdabra" (אברא כדברא) means "I create like the word."
The gnostic term "abraxas" turns up in both Latin and Greek, and it's similar to the first letters of the Greek alphabet, ΑΒΓΔ, alpha-beta-gamma-delta.
The word's origins may stem from the Hebrew word for God or Jesus, "ab" means father, "ben" means son, and "ruach acadosch" means the holy spirit.
Where Did Abracadabra Come From?
The exact origins of the word Abracadabra are unknown, but the earliest historical references offered healing powers. It was said when written and worn (e.g. amulet or stone), a person could be cured of ailments.
Here's a look at the earliest historical references and the first known publication of the word Abracadabra.
Early Meaning of Abracadabra
The first known reference to the word Abracadabra comes in the 2nd century in Liber Medicinalis ("The Medical Book" or "Book of Medicine") from the works of Serenus Sammonicus, a physician and philosopher.
In his book of popular remedies, Sammonicus advocated using abracadabra as a cure for fever known in modern times as malaria.
Sammonicus suggested the word Abracadabra should be written out, each time with one less letter until it formed a triangle.
Patients would wear the triangular literary amulet around the neck.
They believed the amulet acted like a funnel and channelled illness from the body, represented by one letter vanishing each line.
Sammonicus' book was the Doctors Book of Home Remedies of 200 CE.
See the original reference to Abracadabra in Liber Medicinalis (aka De medicina praecepta) on Google Books: Page 267.
Inscribis chartae, quod dicitur Abracadabra: Saepius et subter repetas, sed detrahe summae, Et magis atque magis desint elementa figuris: Singula quae semper rapies et coetera figes, Donec in angustam redigatur litera conum. His lino nexis collum redimire memento
“Write several times on a piece of paper the word ‘Abracadabra,’ and repeat the words in the lines below but take away letters from the complete word and let the letters fall away one at a time in each succeeding line. Take these away ever, but keep the rest until the writing is reduced to a narrow cone. Remember to tie these papers with flax and bind them round the neck.”
What is a literary amulet? a charm, like an ornament, inscribed with an incantation and worn around the neck to protect or cure evil or disease.
Difference Between Abracadabra and Avada Kedavra
Fast forward to 1997, the author of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling, alluded to the original Aramaic word by assigning it to an evil spell by Lord Voldemort.
The Dark Lord used "Avada Kedavra" to kill Potter's parents, Lily and James Potter.
The killing curse was one of three Unforgivable Curses and, when successfully cast, caused instantaneous and painless death.
Remember wizards-- always use your magic powers for good, not evil.
What Does Abracadabra Mean Backwards?
Forwards, abracadabra, means "I will create as I speak," as documented in ancient Hebrew writings.
A magic word that cured diseases.
Christians later adopted it to ward off evil spirits and demons, and now the word is associated with magicians and stage magic.
Abracadabra written backwards is arbadacarba, which means nothing at all!
Although it may appear visually symmetric, Abracadabra is not a palindrome, a word, phrase or sentence that reads the same backward as it does forward. e.g. mom, wow, noon, kayak, racecar.
It does have bragging rights; it is one of the longest words you can type only with your left hand on a QWERTY keyboard.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Here are the most common magic-related questions:
Do magicians say "Abracadabra?"
Yes--sort of. Some magicians say "Abracadabra" in their performances, but the trend has faded greatly over the past century. The word has become synonymous with magic tricks and illusions but is rarely used in performances.
Is "Abracadabra" a palindrome?
No, "Abracadabra" is not a palindrome. Palindromes are words that read the same forwards and backward. For example, "racecar" is a palindrome.
What is the difference between "Abracadabra" and "Avada Kedavra?"
"Abracadabra" is a word often used in magic performances, while "Avada Kedavra" is a fictional killing curse from the Harry Potter book and film series.
Is "Abracadabra" evil?
No, "Abracadabra" in itself is not an evil word. However, its usage may be associated with supernatural powers, hence the word has often been considered mystical and magical.
How many syllables does "Abracadabra" have?
There are five syllables in the word "Abracadabra." The syllables are "a-bra-ca-da-bra."
Is the word "Abracadabra" in the Bible?
No, the word "Abracadabra" is not found in the Bible. Its origin is believed to have come from Aramaic and has been used for centuries in various cultures for its supposed healing properties.
Is "Abracadabra" one word or two?
"Abracadabra" is a single word.
What Do Magicians Say at the End of a Trick?
Most words magicians say happen before the magic trick. As if the words themselves make the magic possible. However, magicians often say Ta-Da to inform the audience that magic is over or something magical has happened.
Like the end of this answer, Ta Da!
What are Other Popular Magic Words?
Abracadabra is one of the most popular magic words, but it's not the only one. Here are some other favorites:
Hocus Pocus originates in the 1600s early reference to the name of juggler and magician.
Presto comes from Italian and means "quickly."
Sim Sala Bim is a famous magic word used by Dante.
The word Alakazam has origins in the Arabic phrase "Al Qasam," meaning "oath."
And, of course, Ala Peanut Butter Sandwiches coined by Sesame Street's Amazing Mumford.
Above all, the best magic words are please and thank you, right?
What is the Magic Stick a Magician Uses?
It's not just words that magicians are known to use.
Magicians have tools. A magician's stick is called a magic wand, and sceptres are used by wizards, like Harry Potter.
A few tools, magic words and hours and hours of practice.
From its roots in ancient healing practices to its popularization in modern magic shows, "Abracadabra" has a rich and varied history that reflects the evolution of human culture and imagination.
Let us know your favorite magic word! Vote here:
Hit the ♥️ if you enjoyed this article and share your questions in the comments below.
Are you interested in learning more about the history of magic? Read other articles on Magician Masterclass here.
What to Read Next:
Ryan Joyce is the Executive Director of the Ontario OWOW Magic Festival. Ryan is a professional magician, entertainer and speaker who has performed over 5000+ shows worldwide. He has appeared on Penn & Teller's Fool Us, Canada's Got Talent and every Canadian national television network. He has over 10+ million views on YouTube, Facebook and social media and is trusted by Fortune 500 companies to deliver world-class performance.