The origin of the word Abracadabra

It is inextricably associated with magic. It is an almost universal sign of the supposedly impossible. What is the origin of the word Abracadabra? It first appears in the writings of Quintus Serenus Sammonicus more than 1,800 years ago. It was a magic remedy against fever, a life-threatening condition in a time before antibiotics.

In the second century AD, in a book titled Liber MedicinalisSerenus advised make an amulet. It had to contain the magic word inscribed, to hang it around the neck of the sick person. He prescribed that the word be written in successive lines, but in a downward triangle and with one letter less each time:


The origin of the word Abracadabra is highly debated, but it is known that it is very old.
The origin of the word Abracadabra is highly debated, but it is known that it is very old.


The inscription would then consist of 11 lines, written until there were no characters left in the word. Likewise, Serenus said, the fever would also disappear. Versions of hocus-pocus also appear in an Egyptian papyrus written in Greek from the 3rd century AD. Omit the vowels at the beginning and end of hocus-pocus in the following lines. Also in a Coptic codex from the 6th century, which uses the same method, but a different magic word.

For followers of Greek magic, writing variations of a word in a downward-pointing triangle made sense. It formed a “cluster of grapes” or “heart shape.” It was a way of writing an oral spell that repeated and diminished the name of an evil spirit in the same way. These spirits were believed to cause illness.

Abracadabra was an “apotropaic, a word that could prevent bad things.” It is explained by Elyse Graham, a language historian at Stony Brook University (in New York, USA). Some believe that abracadabra comes from the Hebrew phrase ebrah k’dabri, which means “I believe as I speak.” Others think it comes from avra gavra, an Aramaic phrase meaning “I will create man.” They are the words of God on the sixth day of creation.

The word is now associated with magicians' tricks.
The word is now associated with magicians’ tricks.

Relegated to magic

The origin of the word Abracadabra is much disputed. But it maintained its function as a magical remedy against illness for many centuries. A 16th century Jewish manuscript from Italy records it.

At the beginning of the 19th century it appeared in a play written by William Thomas Moncrieff, as an example of a magic word. Magic was considered useful as a remedy before the advances of modern medicine. That is why hocus-pocus is now confined to the realm of stage magic and sleight of hand tricks.

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