Abracadabra is mainly a sleight-of-hand, amateur magicians word today, though it didn’t begin that way.
One source suggests it began as the name of the supreme deity of the Assyrians. Another gives it to an Egyptian deity Abrasax, though they seem secure stating the first recorded use goes to a Roman physician, O. Severus Sammonicuas.
In 200 A.D. he prescribed the word as a mystical charm against ague flux, toothaches and fever. It had to be written on parchment in the following form:
A B R A C A D A B R A
A B R A C A D A B R
A B R A C A D A B
A B R A C A D A
A B R A C A D
A B R A C A
A B R A C
A B R A
A B R
Once that was done, you fold it into the shape of a cross, hang it around your neck for nine days and, on the last day, before sunrise, face away from an eastward flowing stream, and cast it over your shoulder into the waters.
The upside down triangular shape of the letters acted as a funnel to drive the sickness from the body, wrote physician Sammonicuas.
His “prescription,” we can assume, hung around for more than a thousand years because it is recorded as being a popular remedy during the Great Plague, around 1665, when large numbers of these same amulets were worn as safeguards against infection.
The latest reincarnation of abracadabra will be known to fans of Harry Potter books where, according to one word analyst, J. K. Rowling has combined it with the Latin cadaver to come up with the killing curse, Avada Kedavra. Or maybe it’s just a clever twist on the original itself?
So let’s give it a try.
And there on our desk calendar our friendly, neighbourhood Farmers’ Almanac tells us we’ve entered the Dog Days of Summer, another inheritance from the ancient ones.
Dog Days begin July 3rd, because way back when the ancients drew images of the sky by “connecting the star dots,” they decided Sirius, the brightest star in their night sky, joined the sun in giving us more heat for 20 days before they were in conjunction with one another, and 20 days after, so for 40 days they were in for a hot spell.
Today, in our so-called enlightened age, we’d likely set it all aside as much ado about nothing.
Though Webster’s dictionary still tells us it’s “the period between early July and early September when the hot, sultry weather of summer usually occurs in the northern hemisphere.”
In this day of frills, tattoos, body piercing, and unisex jewelry, why not a special amulet, translating Webster’s second definition of dog days, from its dictionary explanation of “a period of stagnation, or inactivity,” to something like, “the grayling and lake trout are calling, let’s go fishing.”
Well it didn’t work that time, we’re still here, but we’re not wearing our amulet.
Though our magnificent rivers and lakes are close, abundant, and the ‘dog days of summer’ are the time to go for it: fishing, golfing, hiking, camping, gardening, whatever.
Fishing sounds good to me after hearing about a lake full of rainbow trout weighing in at five to 15 pounds. It’s called Zippermouth Lake; you’ll find it somewhere in “larger than life” land.
Abracadabra — a single word, or a bunch have changed the world from time to time. Maybe the best use of dog days after all would be from another ancient, Omar Khayyam.
In the Rubaiyat, “here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough, a flask of wine, a book of verse, and Thou…”* Words are the magic which holds us together as a people. Our language is us!
A tip of the hat to Dave for his gift of the book Why Do We Say It? — a book which dips into the birth of a word, and a glimpse into its life. Enough to evoke curiosity for further digging with subsequent revelations, fascinations, fun, frolic and fancy.
And a belated Happy Independence Day, to our neighbours in Alaska, and south of 60. Our national birthday celebration was a good one, we hope yours was too. Friendship is the cement that holds the world together, eh?
*( Edward Fitzgerald translation.)