The magician has sawn in half the box in which his lovely assistant lies. Now he turns to the top half, from which her head protrudes, looking on expectantly. A lively tune by Steve Miller bounces and zaps in the background. This rabbit-grabber, who goes by the sinister name of El Maestro del Cadáver, raps his wand on the box and commands it in Spanish to open: “¡Abra!” And open it does, to reveal his assistant’s top half clad in nothing but an amulet with a paper scroll inside it. The assistant surveys her bust, folds her arms and, shooting El Maestro a look that could kill, says icily, “A bra, cad, a bra.”
Well, that’s what today’s word makes me think of. But mostly it makes me think of the Steve Miller song – “Abracadabra” (“Abra, abracadabra… I wanna reach out and grab ya”). And, of course, in the world of Harry Potter, the killing curse: Avada Kedavra.
This word is the quintessential magic word – or, anyway, the quintessential magic-trick word, the word you use to go with a little hocus-pocus. It has a bit of the incantatory quality to it in the rhyming, /æbrə/ and /dæbrə/, with an epenthetic syllable /kə/ giving it a feel in the same vein as thingamabob or tickety-boo with a taste of ka-ching, kaboom, and all those other words that cock before firing. The rolling /r/ gives it the necessary flourish for magic. The shape of it looks a bit like a film strip of a fancy trick with cups and balls. Even the fingers, typing it, may seem to be performing a little magic gesture, a dance that loops around and back with a central epicycle under the left hand – how sinister!
You may be interested to know that this word once was used as an actual charm – to be used in an amulet to drive sickness out of the body, written on a piece of paper in a triangle:
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
It was mentioned by a Roman physician in the 4th century AD. But where did he get it from? A congeries of conjectures have been conjured forth. Some think it comes from the beginning of the alphabet, an abecedarian invention. Some think it’s related to Abraxas, a gnostic name for the supreme god. Various ideas have been put forth about origins from Hebrew, Aramaic, or related languages: perhaps from berakah “blessing” and dabar “speak”, perhaps from ab “father”, ben “son”, and ruakh akadoskh “holy spirit”, perhaps from Chaldean abbada ke dabra “perish like the word” or Aramaic avra kehdabra “I will create as I speak” – certainly J.K. Rowling seems to have been aware of one or both of the latter two. We do, however, run up against the absence of abracadabra from Jewish texts before the middle ages, which is a gap of several centuries.
But, really, if you take a set of basic sounds arranged in a reasonably straightforward way, regardless of where you got them from, you are likely to have many coincidences between your constructed word and plausible phrases in several other languages. You can conjure etymologies out of thin air with a wave of your word-wand… all the while leaving the real origin obscured in the mists of time.