Magic Words and Spells

In children’s fantasy, enchanted realism and magical realism, there is often an arc word (leitwort) which enters popular lexicon, or sticks in the mind long after the reader leaves the story. These magic words sometimes become a part of the child’s own imaginative play, an improvised version of early childhood fan fiction.

Where Do Magic Words Come From?

Imagine a baby on the verge of learning to speak. For all of her life she has been inarticulate — she wants something, but all she can do is cry or say “Uh, uh, uh!” Then, somehow, the purpose of speech is revealed to her, and after what must be a tremendous struggle, the power of speech. Though we all once experienced it, it is hard now to picture the immense thrill of power we must have felt the first time we cried “Mommy!” or “Cookie!” and saw what we desired appear. From this experience, surely, comes the power of magic words and spells in fairytales.

Small children like simple, repetitive rhymes and games, just as they like repetitive or cumulative folktales such as The Gingerbread Man. As they grow older and more competent linguistically they become impatient with such tales; they learn that the magic spell doesn’t always work and that words don’t always mean what they seem to mean.

Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grownups: The subversive power of children’s literature
1920s Magic poster 'Brush The Mystic The Hindu Basket'
1920s Magic poster ‘Brush The Mystic The Hindu Basket’

Examples of Magic Words and Spells

  • Nickety Nacketty Noo Noo Noo by Joy Cowley, in which the spell is in the title
  • Harry Potter is full of them: Riddikulus, Obliviat, Alohomora etc.
  • The Magic Faraway Tree series by Enid Blyton features trees which whisper ‘wisha wisha’, which as a child reader sent a tingle down my spine. While this onomatopoeia doesn’t directly function as a magic word, it signals that the children have entered an enchanted realm.
AbracadabraOriginates in the late 17th century (as a mystical word engraved and used as a charm to ward off illness). The word comes from Latin and was first recorded in a 2nd-century poem by Q. Serenus Sammonicus.
Presto!From Italian ‘quick, quickly’, from late Latin praestus ‘ready’. In modern English, it’s usually ‘Hey, presto!” This is because magicians started using ‘Hey presto!’ in the late 18th century. English speakers first borrowed presto from Italian as a musical term.
ShazamThis is relatively new, dating only from the 1940s, and a guy called Gomer Pyle, who popularised the Marvel Comics word.
Ta-da!This is from the art deco era, and is simply mimetic, meaning it’s the sound we imagine is made when a magician makes a flourish and presents something magical to the audience.
Voila!French (voilà) from the 1700s, basically means ‘Look!’

What makes a good magic word?

For the answer to this, I turn to the work of scholars who have studied nursery rhymes. Nursery rhymes have a proven track record for memorability and infiltration into the real lives of children (and caregivers).

In her paper “From nursery rhymes to childlore: orality and ideology“, Catalina Millán Scheiding writes about the enduring popularity of nursery rhymes under the following headings:

  1. Rhythm rhythm is an especially important aspect of the prosody of nursery rhyme (along with  intonation, stress and tempo of speech). Then there’s isochrony (e.g. whether a language is stress-timed or syllable timed). Children’s rhymes tend to have a ‘binary structure’ e.g. quatrains, or four-beat lines (Baa Baa Black Sheep). Some have proposed that this is because they mimic heartbeats, which we remember from our time in the womb. Nursery rhymes often offer a sense of closure in their rhythm. This is known as a ‘closed circular structure’. Scheiding offers Baa Baa Black Sheep as an example of this. John Prine’s Prine’s rhythmic delivery of “Illegal Smile” is likewise phrased ‘like a children’s sing-along, emphasizing the final two syllables of each line: “I chased a rainbow down a one-way street — dead end/And all my friends turned out to be insurance — sales men.”’
  2. Musicality refers to metrical pattern and how rhythm is marked. English is an example of a ‘stress timed language’, which means native English speakers in most dialects around the world leave the same length of time between stressed syllables. (Māori background speakers in New Zealand often speak native English without the stress timing, borrowing Māori syllable timing unrelated of whether they also speak Te Reo Māori.) ‘Musicality’ of an utterance will partly depend on who is uttering it.
  3. Repetition Binary structures lend themselves to repetition. Rhyme is another form of repetition and the following observation is especially interesting:

Rhymes are generally rooted in the sensory world and make reference to people, objects, and actions, but not ideas, although ideas can and are inferred and assumed from the short actions found in the rhymes. This situational nature makes rhymes more recognizable, as the objects and actions they depict are related to the culture they belong to, and can be found in daily actions. A rhyme could then be recalled and ‘activated’ when in contact with any of these domestic activities which it mentions.

Debbie Pullinger, From Tongue to Text: A New Reading of Children’s Poetry
  1. Formulaicity babies initially learn language as ‘units’ and later as linked strings of words, initially unaware of divisions. Much adult language is also formulaic, and these shared phrases are an important part of a community’s identity.
  2. Language as Play Memorable phrases are phrases which form the basis of play. Audiences incorporate them into play and build on them, using the original as a model. Where magic words and rhymes accompany movement (e.g. clapping, skipping, jumping) they become more memorable. Memorable phrases are performative (contrasting with descriptive).
Charles Geer 1965 Danger Is The Password
Charles Geer 1965 Danger Is The Password

Magic Words Revisited

  • Nickety nacketty noo noo noo appeals because of its repetition, its musicality and its rhythm.
  • J.K. Rowling’s magical words and spells work a bit differently from the nursery rhymes. They appeal to the older reader’s interest in wordplay and etymology. For instance, “Riddikulus” is an adaptation of “ridiculous” as well as of ridiculum (Latin, “joke”) and ridere (Latin, “to laugh”). The reader doesn’t necessarily know all that in order to appreciate it, but by uttering it in an everyday context, bonds with other Harry Potter superfans.
  • Wisha wisha is beautifully onomatopoeic, and whenever I hear wind blowing through trees, I think they are saying ‘wisha wisha’. This is in line with Pullinger’s theory that the best nursery rhymes (and also the best magic words) are situational, found in daily actions (or natural phenomena).

Header painting: The Magic Circle 1886 by John William Waterhouse 1849-1917

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