Abracadabra

This is a bit more highbrow than I usually want to get around here, but I’ve recently become aware of a couple of interesting posts about the supposed meaning of Abracadabra.

First, Steve Caruso of The Aramaic Blog sets out to refute the idea that the term is originally Aramaic and means something like “I create as I speak.” This has been the dominant assumption for the past fifty years or so, but Steve sees little to commend it. Along the way, he shades into Harry Potter territory by noting Stephen Jay’s 1977 conjecture that the term “may be from the Aramaic: Avada Kedavra, ‘May the thing be destroyed.'”

Next, Jim Davila of PaleoJudaica writes a brief note to caution us against so quickly dismissing the Aramaic hypothesis:

 Technically [Steve] is correct, but I think it’s a little more complicated. Steve acknowledges that the first part of the phrase, “Abra,” could come from the Aramaic word “to create,” although it is badly pronounced (but ancient Greek-speaking magicians were less than rigorous about such things) and that the middle part, “ca” could be a preposition meaning “as” or “like.” The problem is the last part, “dabra” which looks like an Aramaic form (with the emphatic ending “-a”) of the Hebrew (not Aramaic) word davar (דבר), “word” (not “I speak”). As far as I can tell, this Hebraism is not attested in Aramaic, but we should be cautious about this, since the Hebrew root was borrowed into Aramaic, as we see in the word dibbura (דיבורא), “speech, “utterance,” etc., in Rabbinic Aramaic (Jastrow, 295; Sokoloff, Palestinian, 144; Sokoloff, Babylonian, 326). If we allow for the possible similar (and otherwise unattested) borrowing of davar, Abracadabra could be a badly pronounced rendition of “I create according to the word” or the like. It seems entirely plausible to me that an ancient Jewish or Greco-Egyptian magician could have come up with this sort of cool-sounding incantation.

Magicians in the Hellenistic world seem to have frequently adopted words of power from other languages. That is how the Hebrew name for God became mixed up with Greco-Roman magic in a number of different forms and spellings. I think Jim is right that this is at least a plausible explanation for this almost archetypical magic word.

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