A Magical Dictionary

Craig Conley, the brilliant lexicographer who has given the game playing world a veritable library of quintessential dictionaries, including one-letter words, all-vowel words and all-consonant words has recently published a truly, well, magical piece of scholarship called "The Magician's Hidden Library." Currently composed of two volumes, both available in on-line and print versions, the Magician's Hidden Library is a fascinating piece of scholarship, and an invitation to wonder.

Here, courtesy of Mr. Conley, as found on the on-line version of Magic Words: A Dictionary, a sampler of some of the etymological delights of half-belief:

Even the youngest of children are deeply moved by magic words: writing teacher Deena Metzger describes a three-year-old pupil who "knew the magic of words; she knew that words could create magic, that they were magic. She knew that they could create worlds, could describe worlds, explore worlds, and also be the bridge between one world and another" (quoted in Awakening at Midlife by Kathleen A. Brehony [1997]).

Childhood words are interesting to contemplate. "The first words of a baby are not words at all," suggests professor Selma H. Fraiberg, "but magic incantations, sounds uttered for pleasure and employed indiscriminately to bring about a desired event." A one-year-old baby will discover that "the syllable 'mama,' repeated several times if necessary, will magically cause the appearance of the invaluable woman who ministers to all needs and guards him against all evil. He doesn't know just how this happens, but he attributes this to his own magic powers." This is why Fraiberg contends that "language originates in magic." A baby's earliest incantations are characterized by surprise and excitement, two crucial qualities for magic words.

"Gotcha" is "the magic word that only works for older brothers on their young siblings, as when playing cops and robbers." --William J. Webbe, "My Brother and Me," Making Our Own Fun (2004)

"Once upon a time" are the magic words that open the floodgates of a child's imagination." --Dale Carnegie, The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking (1990)

There is a musical quality to fee-fie-foe-fum that echoes oral ballads and rhymes associated with childhood, such as "Old MacDonald's" chorus of "e-i-e-i-o" (the final "e-i-o" matching the vowel sounds of "fee-fie-foe") and "Eenie Meenie Miney Mo" (the final words "Meenie Miney Mo" again matching the vowel sounds of "fee-fie-foe"). "The sonorous part of spells and incantations can be taken just as rows of syllables that the intellect refuses to understand. In fact, [it] is a sacred language, sometimes spoken only by the performer. Nevertheless, an enormous psychological power is attributed to these incomprehensible and magic words. . . . [T]heir musicality can capture everyone" (Mirela Vlaica, "Forms of Magic in Traditional Mentality" [2003]).

"Wiggle Your Fingers, Wiggle Your Thumbs, That's the Way the Magic Comes" is a traditional magic phrase used by magican and storyteller Uncle Michael.

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Anonymous Craig said...

Magic Words: A Dictionary has a new URL:


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