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The word may have its origin in the Aramaic language, but numerous conflicting folk etymologies are associated with it.
The word Abracadabra may derive from an Aramaic phrase meaning "I create as I speak." This etymology is dubious, however, as אברא כדברא in Aramaic is more reasonably translated "I create like the word." In the Hebrew language, the phrase translates more accurately as "it came to pass as it was spoken."
"[A]bracadabra may comprise the abbreviated forms of the Hebrew words Av (Father), Ben (Son) and Ruach Ha Codesch (Holy Spirit), though an alternative derivation relates the word to Abraxas, a god with snakes for feet who was worshiped in Alexandria." David Pickering's description of the word as an abbreviation from Hebrew is also a false etymology—as he apparently here means Aramaic (בר is Aramaic for "son", it is בן in Hebrew, although בר is an honorific form), nor does he account for the final five letters (i.e., -dabra) in the lexeme.
The first known mention of the word was in the third century AD in a book called Liber Medicinalis (sometimes known as De Medicina Praecepta Saluberrima) by Quintus Serenus Sammonicus, physician to the Roman emperor Caracalla, who in chapter 51 prescribed that malaria sufferers wear an amulet containing the word written in the form of a triangle, or "abracadabrangle":
The power of the amulet, he explained, makes lethal diseases go away. Other Roman emperors, including Geta and Alexander Severus, were followers of the medical teachings of Serenus Sammonicus and may have used the incantation as well.
It was used as a magical formula by the Gnostics of the sect of Basilides in invoking the aid of beneficent spirits against disease and misfortune. It is found on Abraxas stones, which were worn as amulets. Subsequently, its use spread beyond the Gnostics.
The Puritan minister Increase Mather dismissed the word as bereft of power. Daniel Defoe also wrote dismissively about Londoners who posted the word on their doorways to ward off sickness during the Great Plague of London. But Aleister Crowley regarded it as possessing great power; he said its true form is abrahadabra.
The word is now commonly used as an incantation by stage magicians when performing a magic trick. It is also applied contemptuously to a conception or hypothesis purporting to be a simple solution of apparently insoluble phenomena.
- Kushner, Lawrence (1998). The Book of Words: Talking Spiritual Life, Living Spiritual Talk. Jewish Lights Publishing. p. 11. ISBN 1580230202.
- Lew, Alan. "This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared". Little, Brown and Company. Retrieved 16 March 2015.
- Dictionary of Superstitions, David Pickering, Cassell Wellington House, 1995, 1
- Vollmer, Friedrich. Quinti Sereni Liber Medicinalis. Leipzig: Teubner, 1916, chap. LII, v. 4.
- "The Tenacious Buzz of Malaria". The Wall Street Journal. July 10, 2010.
- Bartleby Archived November 22, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Abracadabra". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Daniel Defoe. A Journal of the Plague Year. London, Dent, 1911 (1722)
- Guiley, Rosemary (2006). "Abracadabra". The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy. Visionary Living Inc. ISBN 0-8160-6048-7.
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