Abracadabra is a common expression with a long history. Nowadays we recognize it as a corny prelude to a magician’s trick or as an ironic observation when the ends aren’t quite explained by the means. But abracadabra’s roots lie in deep antiquity and a time when the word was believed to have tangible power. Though we use it as a single word today, abracadabra is actually a Hebrew phrase that means, “I create (A’bra) what (ca) I speak (dab’ra).” There’s evidence that the Gnostic term Abraxas is a variant of abracadabra. The Basilides sect of Gnosticism used the word as a magical summons for good spirits to ward off disease and general calamity. To ensure continuous coverage, the Basilides Gnostics carved the word on gemstones and wore them as lucky charms.
The Romans took a more scientific approach to abracadabra. The first written reference to the term comes from the quill of Emperor Caracalla’s tutor and physician, Quintas Serenus Sammonicus, in the early third century. In his medical poem Liber Medicinalis, Serenus Sammonicus prescribes a cure for malaria that required wearing the word abracadabra as an amulet. The cure was more complicated than it might first appear. In order to gain the full medicinal benefit, the sufferer had to first write abracadabra in a triangular pattern on a piece of paper. The paper then had to be folded into the shape of a cross and worn around the neck on a piece of linen long enough for the paper to rest over the pit of the stomach. The amulet was then to be worn for nine days. Just before sunrise on the ninth day, the sufferer—with his back to an easterly flowing stream—was to cast the amulet over his shoulder and into the water. While it may sound wacky, more than fourteen hundred years later, abracadabra written in a triangular pattern and worn on the clothing, was considered an effective way to avoid falling ill during London’s Great Plague of 1665. (With over 100,000 fatalities it could be argued the amulet enjoyed decidedly mixed results).
Despite its tenacious grip on the popular imagination, by the 18th century, abracadabra was garnering some criticism. None other than Puritan minister Increase Mather (who figured prominently in the Salem witch trials) felt it necessary to warn the Massachusetts Colony that the word was without any power at all. In his novel, A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe singles out abracadabra amulets as, “hellish charms and trumpery.” The word enjoyed a brief revival in the early 20th century when the eccentric English occultist, Aleister Crowley made it a part of his ancient Egyptian-inspired Thelemite philosophy. But abracadabra’s glory days were clearly over.
The demise of abracadabra’s magic and mysticism is a good thing for us because the original Hebrew phrase contains genuine wisdom. Try listening to yourself throughout the day. Are you complimentary or complaining? Do you express gratitude or make demands? Do you reach out or pull back? Do you see the apple or the worm? Our thoughts, as reflected in our speech, shape our world and how we feel. The key to a better life is to think and express yourself in ways that reflect who you want to be. So, if you want to be happier, start talking like someone who is happy. It’s entirely up to you. And it’s not magic—it’s abracadabra! —Ebert