Magic Word


Dennis Nedry

Magic words are words which have a specific, and sometimes unintended, effect. They are often nonsense phrases used in fantasy fiction or by stage prestidigitators. Certain comic book heroes use magic words to activate their super powers. Magic words are also used as Easter eggs or cheats in computer games, other software, and operating systems. (For example, the words ‘xyzzy,’ ‘plugh,’ and ‘plover’ were magic words in the classic computer adventure game ‘Colossal Cave Adventure’).

Examples of traditional magic words include: Abracadabra, Alakazam, Hocus pocus, Open sesame (used by the character Ali Baba in the English version of a tale from the collection popularly known as ‘1001 Arabian Nights’), Presto chango, Shazam (used by the comic book hero Captain Marvel), and Shemhamforash (used by Satanists). Craig Conley, a scholar of magic, writes that the magic words used by conjurers may originate from ‘pseudo-Latin phrases, nonsense syllables, or esoteric terms from religious antiquity,’ but that what they have in common is ‘language as an instrument of creation.’

The term magic word may also refer to the word please when used by adults to teach children manners. The single word changes an imperative order into a conditional request, concisely communicating ‘Do as I say, if it pleases you.’ The ‘magic’ is a result of simple psychology, because when a person feels respected they are much more likely to choose a harmonious response. Likewise, other magic words exist as part of a social contract, designed to express affection for another. Such words are magic not because of their effect on people (If they were, this would be simple manipulation, not etiquette) but because they make others feel better in context of the situation.

For example, ‘please’ should not be used for just any request, but a request that might be considered unreasonable without it. This is because it is used to reflect the knowledge that the asker understands the trouble involved in the request. ‘Thanks’ is used to show that the other person’s actions are valued. ‘Sorry’ is perhaps more important than the first two, as it is used to express regret over one’s actions. Without such regret, relationships often dissolve over time. Also, contingent on this idea is the promise of not repeating the action (a promise which may be difficult or impossible to carry out, which is why some people are reluctant to apologize).

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