The origin of the word Abracadabra

by Shirley Williams
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Abracadabra! The word is known by people from all walks of life. Whether you speak Portuguese, French, English, or Arabic you likely have heard and know what Abracadabra means. While we all know that it is a magic word, very few actually know what the word literally means or why people say it. Is it just a nice-sounding word or is there something more to it?

To understand the word Abracadabra we have to go all the way back to medieval times. This was when magic was more commonplace or at least a time when more people believed in its existence. As science and medicine were not well-understood people believed that magic was the cause of most things that were good and bad in life. Abracadabra was one of the most common incantations used during these times and everyone relied on it to conjure a little bit of magic in their lives. 

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There is evidence that many people during this era would wear amulets with upside-down triangles. On the triangle was written the word abracadabra many times. Each time it was written a letter was removed until in the apex of the triangle was just the letter a. It was believed that the more times a sick person said the special word, the better there health would get. This could be related to many religions where it is believed that saying a prayer many times (the rosary in Christianity or a mantra in Buddhism) has similar benefits.

There is strong debate over where the word abracadabra comes from. Some believe it originates from Greco-Roman societies and derives from the word abraxas which can also be found on amulets from historic times. Others think that the word comes from Aramaic where “avra kadavra” means “it will be created in my words”. The final explanation that we have heard and our possible favorite is that it comes from the Hebrew words, ab, which means father, ben, which means son, and ruach hakodesh, which means the holy spirit. While ab-ben-ruach hakodesh sounds very different from abra kadabra it tickles our funny bone that something that is used by magic believers may have originated deep in a religious term.

Whatever the origins of the word it is amazing that it has lasted to modern-day and remains a word that transcends languages in our society. It is likely that the meaning will continue to change depending on how it is used in our society. As I grew up the word abracadabra was used most on children’s morning tv shows for a little bit of tv magic. Since then the word “Avada Kedavra” has now being used on Harry Potter as a terrible curse that has the power to kill someone. In the book it is seen as a sinister curse that should never be used, but that the evil protagonist famously tried to use on Harry when he was a baby resulting in his special scar. 

Perhaps then the word will change from something that was used for health benefits in medieval times, to a magic word for a bit of fun, to something far more sinister. The evolution of words is something that is incredible to watch and ones that are so unique like abracadabra that crosses boundaries of language and culture are incredible to watch. Abracadabra will always hold a special place in my heart because my favorite kebab shop was called AbraKEBABra when I was growing up. The incredible meals that they served definitely required some strange magic to produce. Make sure to check in with us again to learn the origin of more strange words.

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