|A Victorian-era penant with the Abracadabra talisman in the center.
One common Aramaic fiction that tends to circulate all over the place is that the magic word “Abracadabra” is originally from an Aramaic phrase that means “I create as I speak” which is usually spelled out as אברא כדברא.
The thing is that, אברא כדברא cannot possibly mean “I create as I speak” and here is why:
אברא as a verb must come from ברי (/barey/ = to create) so it could easily mean “I will create.” It would also be pronounced /evre/.
The כ /ki-/ prefix could certainly mean “like” or “as.” So “I will create as…”
That leaves us with דברא, which could come from the root דבר which means “to direct” or “to lead” however, given the context, it cannot possibly be a verb. It just doesn’t fit. It would have to be a noun, and some nouns that could work (assuming later Eastern Aramaic spelling) would be:
- Plunder or booty! Arrr! (…well the “Arrr!” is implied. It is booty afterall.)
- And a few others that would really have to be shoehorned in so I will not include them here…
Besides, if it were the verb דבר and meant “to speak” it would also have to be Hebrew, rather than Aramaic (or a late borrowing from Hebrew). Generally, “to speak” in Aramaic is either אמר /amar/ or מלל /malel/ depending on circumstance and context (they’re pretty much like how “say” and “speak” are used in English, respectively).
So where did this myth come from?
It’s actually one of several competing Aramaic etymologies for the phrase that arose in the late 1800s. In short, where the talisman is quite well known in Greek and Latin from as early as the 3rd century, some unknown authority in the past 200 years stated that it was in Aramaic, so a number of authors figured, “Well then there must be some combination that works!” (And you can imagine the creative results.)
The earliest mentions of “Abracadabra” being Aramaic that I can find was in a publication from the 1890s.
The Cyclopaedia of Biblical, theological, and ecclesiastical literature, Volume 1 (1891) By John McClintock and James Strong gives a number of convoluted theories on Abracadabra’s origins, but says the following about the Aramaic:
Abracadabra — [… Grotefend] derives it from the Persian Abrasax [sic] (the name of the Supreme Being) and the Chaldee [Aramaic] word דִּבּוּרָא (the utterance), so that the meaning of it is, “a divine oracle.” […] See Abraxas (p.27)
However, when we look up Abraxas, we find another long explanation about what that word means, followed by… guess what? … more Aramaic:
Abraxas — […] The latest suggestion is that it is the Aramaic for זו עוקא רבא “this is the great seal” read backwards. (p.33)
So, here it’s a Persian-Chaldee (Imperial/Official) Aramaic fusion with the Persian word coming from some more Aramaic read backwards.
Seems legit? No… no it obviously doesn’t.
Before the 1890s we find no mention of Aramaic at all, and the Abraxas hypothesis (as convoluted as it was with or without Aramaic) had the upper-hand when it came to Abracadabra’s folk etymology.
It’s not until the early 1900s that we start to see Aramaic hypotheses creep into the forefront. In Faiths of Man: A Cyclopædia of Religions, Volume 1 (1906) we find:
Abraxas, Abrasax, Abracadabra, Ablathanabla, Abanathabla – Various terms on Gnostik charms —see Rivers of Life, i, p 511. [The translations are much disputed. Probably they are Aramaic sentences: Abrak ha dabra, “I bless the deed”: Ablaṭ ha nabla, “I give life to the corpse”: Abana thabla, “Thou our father leadest”– ED.] The Persian sun-god was seen in the Greek letters Abraxas, representing in numbers 365 — the days of the solar year. This word, placed on an amulet or seal, exorcised evil spirits, and was explained by Semites as meaning Abra-Sheda-bara, “go out bad spirit out [sic]” [or perhaps better, Abrak ha āsh “I bless the man.” — ED.]
In 1922 in Occult Review,
The word ABRACADABRA is a combination of short Aramaic words.
In 1937 in “The Review of Religion – Volume 2,”
Abracadabra, which originally is an Aramaic sentence meaning, “Fade away as this word is fading.”
In 1967 in “The Saturday Review,”
More plausible, perhaps, is derivation from Aramaic abhadda kedabrah, “vanish at this word,” a suitable incantation for warding off maladies.
In 1976 in the book “Strange Customs, how Did They Begin?” by R. Brasch we see a Hebrew explanation in two snippets (sadly out of context for me as Google Books won’t give the entire context):
Abracadabra was a contracted quotation from the Psalmist’s call on God (Ps. 144; 6) to “cast forth lightning” (in Hebrew, b’rok barak) to scatter the evil … On the contrary, abracadabra was the actual (Aramaic or Greek) name of a powerful demon.
In 1977 in the book “Abracadabra” by Stephen Jay we see a very familiar form that was later adopted by J. K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series:
May be from the Aramaic: Avada Kedavra, “May the thing be destroyed.”
And starting in the 1980s, more etymologies than I can list here exploded in printed books and magazines. Everyone “knew” it had to be in Aramaic, and folks were diligently searching for (and guessing) what Aramaic words it might be, and what they mean in translation.
So where did “I create as I speak” come in? During that crazy time of rampant speculation, it was merely lost in the shuffle. It’s when we catch up with the dawn of the Information Age that we find it appear on the Internet via the Straight Dope message board on March 25, 1999:
In this week’s column, Cecil gives three explanations for the term “Abracadabra”, but none of them is the one I had heard while growing up. I am an Orthodox Jew, and I had always been told that it comes from the Hebrew “Abra”, meaning “I will create”, “Ke-dabra”, meaning (roughly) “as I speak”…i.e., invoking the divine powers of creation-through-speech as in Genesis.
And a response on April 18th confirms the source as:
A source for the “Abracadabra” etymology: in “The Book of Words” (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1993, p. 11), Rabbi Lawrence Kushner mentions that “The Aramaic for ‘I create as I speak’ is avara k’dvara, or, in magician’s language, abracadabra.”
A name! We apparently have Rabbi Kushner to blame for publishing this particular etymology, but we cannot blame him for what happened next.
From this one message board it spread like all misinformation does on the Internet: Like wildfire. Faster than truth. Early searches returned the message board post, and (like all things magical or occult-ish) people re-posted the etymology without citing the source. With the rise of Social Media it quickly became a canonized meme, repeated verbatim sans source on Twitter and Facebook at least 5 or 6 times a day (or so my own feeds pull in). It kept on doing this again and again, like some malevolent faux-etymology spreading machine, until it upset one linguist so very much that he felt he needed to take the time to write a very lengthy and emotional blog post about it before he took drastic measures to stem the tide of bad etymology and blew up the Internet to stop it from catching!
Ok… Well… maybe not that last one. Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this, and besides even doing such a thing would probably just drive it underground. 🙂
In any case, to summarize and review the state of the matter:
“Abracadabra” is NOT Aramaic.
And that is the final word.
If you’re interested in actually learning some stuff that *is* Aramaic,
It’s a project that I am steadily building up that includes Galilean Aramaic lessons on YouTube.
UPDATE: Jan 30 2014 – As Jim Davlla mentions on his blog which he linked to in the comments below, there is a bit of nuance that I don’t think I made as clear as I could have in the beginning of my article above. There certainly was some free borrowing going on between Hebrew and Aramaic (in both directions, even) in the Rabbinic period to time that Kabbalah was forming and even to this day it continues. The root דבר was not directly attested in Aramaic as a verb, but was inflected as a noun in various ways in a few dialects of Jewish Aramaic (דביר, דיבור), but in most of these cases it was simply calqued for religious jargon (where general glosses might be favored by some lexicographers, it was more specifically for where דבר is translated from Hebrew, adapted as the name of a particular Hebrew prayer, etc.). Calques are a gray nether-area between languages, and when it comes to דבר in Aramaic vocabulary, I’m not convinced that it integrated enough to call it “Aramaic” without *serious* qualification. 🙂