In this week’s column, Cecil gives three explanations for the term “Abracadabra”, but none of them is the one I had heard while growing up. I am an Orthodox Jew, and I had always been told that it comes from the Hebrew “Abra”, meaning “I will create”, “Ke-dabra”, meaning (roughly) “as I speak”…i.e., invoking the divine powers of creation-through-speech as in Genesis.

Chaim Mattis Keller

LINK TO COLUMN: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1313/whats-the-origin-of-abracadabra-hocus-pocus-and-presto

I’m a little rusty, but I thought “bara” is “I create”, not “abra”. I agree, that the consonants for “create that speak” are B R ’ K ’ D B R which bears a relation to the consonants of abracadabra, but I’ve never seen an etymology that relates it to Hebrew.

To CKDextHavn:

“Bara” means “he created.” In hebrew verbs, when the Aleph (in this case, representing an “Ah” sound) is added to the beginning of the verb root (here, the letters Bais-Resh-Aleph), it denotes the first-person singular future tense, i.e., “I will (whatever…in this case, create)”

Chaim Mattis Keller

Hadn’t heard this explanation, but I’m sure I would have if I’d rummaged through the archives a little longer. It seems clear all these intepretations are speculative, and that nobody really knows.

Ok, some plausable meanings for “Abracadabra”? Can anybody tell me what is the meaning of “Sigfried And Roy”?

I believe the most plausible meaning for “abracadabra” is “I wanna reach out and grab ya.”

** Phil D. **
“Not only is the world queerer than we imagine,
it is queerer than we can imagine.”
–J.B.S. Haldane

Rabbi Dr. R. Brasch gave another possible explanation in his book “How Did It Begin?” He said the phrase “abracadbra” could be a contraction of the Hebrew words for blessing and word - bracha and dabar.

Abracadabra A charm. It is said that Abracadabra was the supreme deity of the Assyrians. Q.
Severus Sammon icus recommended the use of the word as a powerful antidote against ague,
flux, and toothache. The word was to be written on parchment, and suspended round the neck by
a linen thread, in the form given below: -

 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

Easy :slight_smile:

I’d like to fine-tune Chaim Mattis Keller’s answer a bit. The way I heard it, the phrase comes not from Hebrew, but from a closely related language, Aramaic.

“Abra” is a verb meaning “I will create” in both languages. And in both languages, “k” is a prefix meaning “like” or “similar to”. But in Aramaic, “Dabra” is a noun meaning “the word”, the final “a” being a suffix meaning “the”. (In Hebrew, the word “the” is “ha” as a prefix.)

To native speakers at the time, it must have sounded like quite a cute phrase. A two-syllable phrase connected to another two-syllable phrase, both sounding almost identical, but with very different meanings, connected with the “ka” conjunction. Just the kind of attention-grabber a good illusionist would want for his act. “Look, before your very eyes, I’ll do what I just described to you…”

Akiva Miller

Handy, have you a cite for that definition? It looks a lot like the one I remember from my Time Life Mysteries of the Unknown books-- I can’t tell for sure since I got rid of them when I was twelve.

Abracadabra is a magic-square word. Reads forward & downward. It’s not quite a palindrome, so it doesn’t read backwards & upwards.


What is a magic-square word? Your demonstration would work with ANY word which begins and ends with the same letter. One such word, “downward”, appears in your post. So I will demonstrate:


Here’s another example:


These supposed “magic squares” seem to be illusions. At first glance it seems like the first letter in each line is moved to the end of the next line. That is not true of the very first lette of the word, which disappears immediately, and does not show up again until the very end.

Anyone want further proof? Look at Marie Martinek’s example again. There are five "A"s in “abracadabra”, but except for her first and last lines (and first and last columns, by the way) only four appear.

I think Keeves failed to make his point, which was that the so-called “magic square” word definition advanced by marie isn’t right. In fact, a magic square isn’t usually made of words at all. It is made of a seemingly random assortment of numbers any one row, column or diagonal of which add up to the same total. there is one famous one that uses words:


This can be read out as the same phrase in any direction and translates roughly as “the sower Arepo holds the wheels at work.” Of course, this isn’t exactly sorcerous, and one might point out that the use of a bogus “word” like Arepo is cheating…but it DOES satisfy the definition. Marie’s “squaring” of the word ABRACADABRA does nothing but look neat.

Live a Lush Life
Da Chef

The “Sator Arepo” square has an additional seemingly mysterious property that made it so popular. The letters can be rearranged like this:



Of course, “pater noster” means “Our Father”, A and O stand for The Beginning and The End, and the whole thing is shaped like a cross.


Sorry, that came out wrong because some spaces got deleted: The vertical line of letters is supposed to align with the N so that the whole figure is indeed a cross.


A source for the “Abracadabra” etymology: in “The Book of Words” (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1993, p. 11), Rabbi Lawrence Kushner mentions that “The Aramaic for ‘I create as I speak’ is avara k’dvara, or, in magician’s language, abracadabra.”
This etymology has the double benefit of sounding more like “abracadabra” than the several Cecil cites, and also of making more obvious sense – neither of which necessarily makes it the correct etymology…
While I’m at it, Does anyone have any info on “alakazam?” If it’s a corruption from Arabic (“Allah ______”), then we’d have a Christian derivation for “hocus pocus,” an Islamic one for “alakazam,” and potentially an Aramaic, though not necessarily Jewish etymology for "abracadabra…

There’s a dialect of Hebrew, I believe Galilean, that historically didn’t have the b/v alternation of Standard Hebrew. Presumably its Aramaic didn’t either. Hence, abara k’dabara.

By the way, referring to an earlier question, I can verify the use of “fir goirm” for Africans in early Irish (Cecil–check the Dictionary of the Royal Irish Academy, doubtless available at U of C). However, “gorm” would better be translated as “dark and glossy” than solely as “blue”–see my master’s thesis for details. Modern Scots Gaelic uses “duine dubh”- a “black person”, as opposed to “fear dubh”, a “black man”, which would be someone w/black hair.


I’m finding this whole discussion rather intriguing, but I have to interject a point that might make all previous and preceding arguments useless.

It’s obvious we’re dealing with very old words here – words from languages that are essentially dead (Aramaic) or have changed considerably over the past couple of millennia (Hebrew, and don’t deny it – Classic and Modern Hebrew are different). We’re forgetting our transformational linguistics here, people!! At this far-removed date, we can only guess at what the “true” source of abracadabra really is. Our pronunciations are different than the originals, and the words will have been mangled by their passage from person to person, age to age, with no commonly written form to keep the structure pure. Remember that most people, even the illusionists of the time, were illiterate. Sloppy speech habits and contact with other languages have smudged this page permanently.

That said, please continue with this discussion as you like. It’s great, it’s fun, and it brings me back to my days of studying linguistics. It was only my minor, though, so I could be less than right. Either way, Keep On Dopin’ !!

I’m a historical linguist myself. Your points are well taken, but we do know how languages tend to change over time, and what written records we have can be evaluated in light of what we presently hear and what has been documented as heard by speakers of other languages. So it’s not total hocus pocus. As an educated guess, avara k’dvara looks good.

[[We’re forgetting our transformational linguistics here, people!!]]

Man, I knew I forgot something.