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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) a stock magician’s catchphrase or magic word

protective golden amulet bearing an inverted triangle of abracadabra

It’s AD 200, and you’re in Ancient Rome. You’re also unfortunately suffering from malaria, which your local medicus has informed you has been caused by inhaling the stagnant air of nearby swamps. He’s wrong about that of course, but no matter—he has the perfect cure.

Your doctor is Quintus Serenus Sammonicus, the emperor’s personal physician and author of De medicina praecepta, or “The Rules of Medicine”, an epic third-century work of Latin verse in which he outlines many of his most effective remedies. And in chapter 51, he explains his best cure for malaria.

The patient, Sammonicus advises, should be given a piece of parchment on which is written the word ABRACADABRA. Below that is written ABRACADABR. Below that is ABRACADAB. Below that is ABRACADA. Then ABRACAD. And so it continues, line by line, clipped letter by clipped letter, until right at the bottom of the parchment is the single letter A.

This inverted triangle of letters should then be worn on a string around your neck, like an amulet, and there it’ll act like a funnel channelling the illness out of your body. In a few days, Sammonicus advises, you’ll be back to your usual self. As if by magic.

As bizarre as all this might sound, this is the actual history of abracadabra. Long before it was commandeered by second-rate magicians, abracadabra was considered a genuinely magical word, capable of curing ills and precipitating good fortune. But where does it and its magical powers come from? Unfortunately, no one is entirely sure.

One theory claims it’s an Aramaic invention, in which case it might mean something along the lines of “I create as I speak”, perhaps a line stolen from some early scriptural text. Alternatively, it could be a mangled version of the Hebrew words ab (“father”), ben (“son”) and ruach acadosch (“holy spirit”). Or maybe it’s just a distortion of abecedarius, a Latin word essentially meaning “alphabetical order”. Whatever the truth may be, it seems its origins are just as mysterious as its supposed magic powers.

But never mind all that. Back in Ancient Rome, you’re still unwell. So will Sammonicus’s cure actually work? Well, it’s unlikely—it’ll be another 1400 years before doctors begin routinely using quinine to cure malaria. So in the meantime, a little blind faith in an apparently magic word is probably your best hope...

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