“Abracadabra” is a word used in stage magic tricks, the implication being that a mysterious power is being summoned to perform the magic. Now that we can look up how to perform almost any magic stunt, we don’t seriously believe in magic. However, that was not the case in ages past.
The origin of the word is not known. One theory suggests that it originated in the second century CE with the Roman sage, Serenus Sammonicus, who wrote a book called Liber Medicinalis. He prescribed that malaria sufferers wear an amulet containing the word written in the form of a triangle. Evidently, the Romans did not connect malaria with the mosquito bite, but considered the disease to come from “bad air” caused by demons.
In medieval times, people believed that magic truly existed. Any unusual event that they couldn’t explain was considered to be the result of some form of enchantment. They used the incantation “abracadabra” to ward off such bewitchment and to cure poor health. The charm was also written out on paper and worn in an amulet or sewn into clothing.
The belief that “abracadabra” contained powerful magic lasted well into the 1700s. In his Journal of the Plague Year, 1722, Daniel Defoe bemoaned the superstition of the populace when faced with the threat of plague: “People deceiv’d; and this was in wearing Charms, Philters, Exorcisms, Amulets, and I know not what Preparations, to fortify the Body with them against the Plague; as if the Plague was but a kind of a Possession of an evil Spirit; and that it was to be kept off with Crossings, Signs of the Zodiac, Papers tied up with so many Knots; and certain Words, or Figures written on them, as particularly the Word Abracadabra, form’d in Triangle, or Pyramid…
How the poor People found the Insufficiency of those things, and how many of them were afterwards carried away in the Dead-Carts.”
By the 1800s, the word had come to mean “fake magic,” spawning terms like “legal abracadabra” to denote the flummoxing of juries by fast-talking lawyers. Starting around the early 1800s, stage conjurers adopted it as one of their “magic” words to use in their acts.
In modern times, author J. K. Rowling created, in the Harry Potter books, the killing curse “avada kedavra.” It sounds a lot like abracadabra, but she adapted it from an Aramaic word.
I’m not worried about demons, but it sure would be nice if I could get all the housework done by just saying abracadabra.