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Abracadabra, Why Do Magicians Use It, Meaning, and Where Did it Come From?

Updated: Dec 26, 2023

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?


Ancient alchemists den with potions and scrolls
The word Abracadabra first appeared in the 2nd century, meaning "I will create as I speak."

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 century, 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?


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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.

 

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Why Do Magicians Say Abracadabra?

The word Abracadabra on an old book in the shape of a triangle
▲ What is the meaning of Abracadabra and why do magicians use it?
 

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.


Ancient book with the word abracadabra
Abracadabra - Quintus Serenus, Liber medicinalis
 

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