Where did the words abracadabra, hocus-pocus, and presto come from? How did they become associated with magic? --Matthew Mitchell, via the Internet
Age-old process. Years ago, when trying to invoke the mysterious forces of the universe, you said, "Abracadabra." Today you say, "I think we need to call tech support."
Hocus-pocus has been around since the early 17th century. The Oxford English Dictionary tells of a certain conjurer called Hocus-Pocus who used the phrase as part of a faux-Latin incantation during his act: "Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo." It's been plausibly suggested that hocus-pocus is a corruption of the genuine Latin words hoc est enim corpus meum, "for this is my body," spoken during the consecration of the Roman Catholic Mass when the wine and wafer are said to be transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Some experts think hocus-pocus itself was corrupted into the word hoax. One presumes these experts were non-Catholic.
Abracadabra is a much older term, turning up first in a second-century poem. It was used by the Gnostics, early Christians who placed great stock in esoteric knowledge. The term has been explained as (1) a combination of the Hebrew words ab ("father"), ben ("son"), and ruach acadosch ("holy spirit"); (2) a derivation of the name of one Gnostic leader, Abrasax; or (3) a derivation of Abraxas, a Gnostic word for God, "the source of 365 emanations." Allegedly the Greek letters for Abraxas add up to 365 when translated according to numerological principles. If you wrote abracadabra on a parchment in a triangular arrangement--
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
--etc, and hung it around your neck, you'd supposedly be cured of the ague (fever). The Sudafed of the day, I guess, and probably worked about as well.
Presto, Italian for "quickly," has been used by conjurers for centuries to command the unseen demons. A possibly related term is prestidigitation, or sleight of hand, which is probably derived from the Latin words for "quick fingers." Sounds a lot like what pickpockets do, and if you've ever seen one of those three-card-monte guys do his thing, you know the result, as far as your wallet is concerned, is about the same.
A SAD DAY FOR THE NATION
On March 31, America Online will be pulling the plug on the Straight Dope site. If I were you, I'd sell short. But don't worry about us--we'll be moving our on-line resources to our World Wide Web site at www.straightdope.com. The archive and message boards should have made the trip by the time you read this; come see for yourself. One important change: I'll be personally fielding message-board queries about my recent columns. This has required me to overcome my long-standing (and reasonable) loathing of the computer, that toy of the devil. But I've been taking far too much lip from the Teeming Millions, and it's time to give those guys what for. Meanwhile, we're planning some farewell activities on our AOL site. For details, check out keyword: Straight Dope . . . while you can.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.