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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » Magicians of old » » Abracadabra and Hocus Pocus (0 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

Chris Philpott
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Hello Magic History fans!

I recently blogged about magical applications for Google's Ngram viewer ( http://www.magicaonline.com/film_and_magic_blog.htm , Dec 23 post)-- the Ngram is Google's database of all the millions of books they've digitized -- you can enter a word or phrase and see its relative popularity over hundreds of years. I was putting in various magic-related words (like golden-age magicians' names and various magic tricks) when I decided to compare the relative popularity of two well-known magic words, Abracadabra and Hocus Pocus.

I discovered that while Hocus Pocus was the more popular word in the 19th century, Abracadabra had a HUGE surge in popularity in the 1920s. My knowledge of magic history is too slim to know why that might be. I guess it could be part of a general surge in interest in magic at that time or because a specific magician of the era was using the word (similarly, the word Wizard surges in popularity after the Harry Potter books started coming out). So I thought I'd ask if anyone out there knows why Abracadabra suddenly got so popular in the 20s?

btw, I consulted Craig Conley author of the excellent Magic Words: a Dictionary about it -- he is doubtful there is a specific reason beyond the "natural biorhythm of memes" (he blogged about it here: http://mysteryarts.blogspot.com/2011/01/......hms.html ). Maybe he's right but I wonder...

Thanks!

-Chris
Jonathan Townsend
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Are you asking about a correlation between tough times and wishful thinking?
Or perhaps about myth and rites of passage in a society which tolerates neither?
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Jonathan Townsend
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Did the term jiggerypokery trend yet?
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Chris Philpott
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Hey Jonathan:

On jiggerypokery, you can check yourself here: http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?conte......othing=3

And while we're on the topic, here are the popularity trends for the terms card sharp, card shark, card cheat and card mechanic: http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?conte......othing=3

For what it's worth.

-Chris
Bill Palmer
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Sound and fury.
"The Swatter"

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My Chickasaw name is "Throws Money at Cups."

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Chris Philpott
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Perhaps. Me, I was always curious about which came first, "card sharp" or "card shark" and that last link I posted seems to settle the question. But as a writer, the history of words interests me just as a magician might be interested in, ohhh, I don't know, say, the history of the Cups and Balls. Smile

(Actually, I link to Bill's great museum on my website and couldn't resist using the Ngram generator to compare the popularity of "cups and balls" to "card tricks" over the past few centuries -- I was surprised to learn just how prominent the cups were in the culture in the early 1800s.)

-Chris
Bill Palmer
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There is a fallacy in the Ngram viewer. It does not take into account the great period of time in which the vast majority of the people were illiterate. The words abracadabra and Hocus Pocus really had their origins during this time.

It also does not take into account the spoken word.
"The Swatter"

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Bill Palmer
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Quote:
On 2011-01-11 21:56, Jonathan Townsend wrote:
Are you asking about a correlation between tough times and wishful thinking?
Or perhaps about myth and rites of passage in a society which tolerates neither?


All societies tolerate myths and rites of passage. All societies have myths and rites of passage.

However, they may not (and usually don't) tolerate the myths and/or rites of passage of other societies, especially those with which they feel there is socioeconomic competition.
"The Swatter"

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My Chickasaw name is "Throws Money at Cups."

www.cupsandballsmuseum.com
Chris Philpott
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Bill, your points are well taken -- though the Ngram viewer can go back to 1500, I think Google was smart to set the default start point as 1800, about the time literacy was at least high enough to support the novel as a viable commercial artform. The relationship between the written word and the spoken word is tricky, though I suspect there was more of a difference the farther you go back, when literacy was more class based. All these things have to be born in mind.

Still, I wouldn't write the Ngram off as useless. I made some tests with it related to some of the principles found in Banachek's Psychological Subtleties books and found the results quite close to his observations. I chose not to blog about it (nor can I go into it here without revealing too much) but I emailed Banachek with the information and he asked for (and got) my permission to post the information on the PEA net. I'm not a member there so I don't know if he has.
Bill Palmer
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That's interesting about the Banachek correlation. It makes sense, though.

Even with 1500 as a starting point, it still wouldn't give you the beginnings of the use of abracadabra or Hocus Pocus. However, I can see some usefulness for this particular search engine.

Unfortunately, we are returning to a time when literacy seems to be class based.

Re: card sharp, card shark, etc. -- Did you try running "card sharper" through the Ngram search? I believe the earliest use of the term "card sharp" was in this form.
"The Swatter"

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My Chickasaw name is "Throws Money at Cups."

www.cupsandballsmuseum.com
Chris Philpott
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I agree -- the Ngram doesn't help date the origins of Abracadabra or Hocus Pocus -- I think the best resource on that is Craig Conley's Magic Words: A Dictionary.

According to Conley, Abracadabra derives from the ancient Aramaic "Ahbra Kedahbra" which translates as "I will create as I speak." It was once considered a true magic word.

Hocus Pocus never was. It dates from the early 1600s and was a common name for a magician or juggler -- it was sham-Latin probably based on a perversion of the sacramental blessing from the Mass, "Hoc est corpus meum": "This is my body." I think to this day it retains a bit of its mocking tone: one might say "It's all hocus pocus and mumbo jumbo" but not likely say "it's all abracadabra and mumbo jumbo".

And Bill, you're quite right about "card sharper" -- it predates "card sharp" by 30 years! Well played.

-Chris
Bill Palmer
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Craig may not have the latest info on either word. Abracadabra, according to some of the other Aramaic sources came from Ahbrakhadabra (hard to transliterate, because of the idiosyncracies of Aramaic and other Semitic languages) which may have been a spell to keep away evil spirits and the common cold. There is a talisman that dates back to the early middle ages that is a triangular representation of ABRACADABRA, which very well may be the link between the conjurer and the alchemist. There is also some evidence that it may even go back as far as ancient Persia.

Hocus Pocus was an actual person. His name was William Vincent. According to Dr. Philip Butterworth, "The 1620s brought William Vincent to the Records when in 1619 he was granted a licence 'to exercise the art of Legerdemaine in any Townes within the Relme of England and Ireland.'

"He was described as 'alias Hocus Pocus, of London,' and was involved in cheating at the game of 'ticke tacke.'" This appeared in Butterworth's Magic on the Early English Stage.

Butterworth concludes that Vincent may have been the author of Hocus Pocus, Junior. There is some controversy over that.

Literary references to Hocus Pocus generally start around 1640, which was shortly before the presumed death of William Vincent. Jonson, Cleveland and Alexander Pope all reference him.

Most of the magical etymologists now feel that the connection of Hocus Pocus to hic est corpus is probably apocryphal. It's like the court case in which the judge told Jeff Busby that the Paul Fox cups that Busby claimed he owned the design of looked too much like a thermos bottle top to be protectable. It didn't happen. It was a great story, though.

Many of the errors in the etymology of common magic words have been preserved by the same "historians" who perpetrated the nonsense about the "cups and balls workers" on the walls of Tomb #15 at Beni Hasan.
"The Swatter"

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Clay Shevlin
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Quote:
On 2011-01-13 02:13, Bill Palmer wrote:
… Butterworth concludes that Vincent may have been the author of Hocus Pocus, Junior. There is some controversy over that.

Literary references to Hocus Pocus generally start around 1640, which was shortly before the presumed death of William Vincent. Jonson, Cleveland and Alexander Pope all reference him. ...

If memory serves, Phil states unequivocally that Vincent is the author of Hocus Pocus Junior, and yes there is disagreement about this conclusion for a variety of reasons, a few of which are discussed in another thread here. I believe the earliest literary reference to “Hocus Pocus” dates back to 1622.
Bill Palmer
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You are correct. Butterworth is convinced for a number of reasons that William Vincent is the author of HPJ. I used to agree with him, but I'm not quite as convinced as I once was. I'm willing to leave the matter open.

Interestingly, the various magic/jugling books of that rough time frame, i.e. Scot - Hocus Pocus Junior, have "magic words" in them. None of these books use the word "abracadabra" or the phrase "hocus pocus" as a magic word. They do use "Hey, fortuna," "Hey, Presto," and "passe, passe."
"The Swatter"

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My Chickasaw name is "Throws Money at Cups."

www.cupsandballsmuseum.com
Chris Philpott
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I'd hate to do Conley's Dictionary of Magic Words a disservice -- I was just giving the briefest synopsis of his extensive passages on these words (each of which goes on for pages and includes many early variations, sources and contradictory evidence -- the book is 360 pages long and well-annotated). Conley's book was published three years after Butterworth's (which I have not read, but it sounds excellent and I will). I don't have my copy of Conley in front of me so I can't check if Butterworth is in his bibliography, but I would guess it is. Craig's gotten a lot of well-deserved praise for his book: http://www.oneletterwords.com/magicwords/

Though I've never met Craig, we've corresponded and he strikes me as a serious scholar (and a nice guy).

-Chris
Bill Palmer
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I think you will find Butterworth's book to be somewhat pedestrian. When I got my copy, the book was available only in hardback and cost nearly $100.00. Now you can get a paperback for much less.

Rather than check to see if Butterworth is in his biography, check to see if Hocus Pocus, Junior, The Art of Jugling and Discouerie of Witchcraft are. Then check to see if the material from Pope, Jonson and Cleveland are mentioned. These are primary sources. Butterworth is a secondary source.

There seems to be a lot of secondary reference in Conley's book. I would like to know if he has actually seen any of the early magic books that he apparently references.

Here's the problem. The further away you get from the source, the more room there is for error to creep into a reference. In the cups and balls, the most striking example of this that I can call to mind is the famous misinterpretation of the tomb painting at Beni Hasan. Once I had a complete drawing of that wall, I could see where the misinterpretations were. And that drawing is in it's own way basically a secondary reference, because it was executed by a draftsman and not done by photography. We can only assume that Howard Carter's execution of all of that was spot on. Now that the original painting is basically mush, this drawing may be the best we have.

But then we get into the misinterpretations that were foisted upon us by Champollion and Rosselini, and furthered by S.W. Clarke and others, who basically did their research with an agenda. So, did Conley know about the Persian references to abracadabra?

The date of publication of his book means little if he ignored any of the other material.

This also brings up another topic -- this is the accuracy of the translations of the foreign words and phrases. Voilà may not actually mean "behold." I would like to know how closely Conley checked the translations.

I'm in the translation business. I know how easy it is to fall into the trap of assuming something, especially when it comes to false cognates. An example from music is the (mis)translation of the name of C.P.E. Bach's book on playing the keyboard, in which the German word "Art" is translated as "Art," when it actually means "method" or "manner." The German word for art is "Kunst."
"The Swatter"

Founder of CODBAMMC

My Chickasaw name is "Throws Money at Cups."

www.cupsandballsmuseum.com
Chris Philpott
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Yes, primary sources are very important. So perhaps, if you have questions about Conley's scholarship maybe you should ask Conley -- he can answer them much better than I can. I think you will find him very friendly and interesting (Encarta called him “America’s most creative and diligent scholar of letters, words and punctuation.” ). You can contact him through his blog devoted to magic words ( http://mysteryarts.blogspot.com/ ), or on his main blog ( http://www.oneletterwords.com/weblog/ ).
Bill Palmer
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I'll read his book first.

BTW, I just got a really interesting DVD from Tod Karr that has a lot of the early magic books in a searchable form. There are several editions of HPJ plus a couple of H Dean, Discouerie, etc.

I've had most of these as photocopies for some time.
"The Swatter"

Founder of CODBAMMC

My Chickasaw name is "Throws Money at Cups."

www.cupsandballsmuseum.com
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