Magic words: performative utterance in fact and fantasy
The word abracadabra—the favorite exclamation of magicians—may derive from a phrase in Hebrew that means ‘I will create as I speak’. At least, that is one of several folk etymologies that are associated with the word; others suggest that it originated in Latin, Greek, or one of several other Hebrew phrases (perhaps the Hebrew-Aramaic phrase avra gavra—‘I will create man’, as God is supposed to have said on the sixth day). The origins of the phrase hocus pocus are better attested: it derives from hoc est corpus meum, the Latin words that a Catholic priest recites at a crucial moment during mass. (Presumably, churchgoers without Latin remembered it as a phrase of power.) For our purposes, what is of interest in the rise of these words is what they reflect about our desire to create—or change—reality with language.
The power (and glamour) of words
Grammarians like to boast that the word glamour derives from the word grammar. The boast is true; the first sense of glamour, which we adapted in the 18th century, was that of a spell which, spoken properly, would cast a magical effect. (Glamour in the David Bowie sense came later.) The word spell in the magical sense similarly comes from the same word in the sense of statement or story, which goes back in various forms to Proto-Germanic. So potent is the dream that words hold magic that some of our very words for magic come from our words for words.
In ordinary life, we occasionally speak words that change reality. In a work that literary scholars still frequently cite, How to Do Things with Words (1955/62), the philosopher of language J.L. Austin discussed what he called performative utterances, that is, statements that do not merely describe conditions, but create them:
‘I now pronounce you husband and wife.’
‘I name this ship the Enterprise.’
‘A bet? You’re on!’
‘McGruff, you’re a damn fine detective, but you’re a loose cannon. Put your gun and badge on the table; you’re off the case.’
To speak a sentence like this, under the proper circumstances, constitutes the very action that it invokes. The decisive words are neither true nor false while they are being said, but they become true the instant the sentence falls together.
A planet on the table
But of course, we don’t want merely to make a couple man and wife. We want to make man and wife—and dragons and islands and storms at sea and suns and skies and kings, if our literary record testifies right. Writers often praise language in grandiose terms for its power to create, or to make us feel as though we create, ex nihilo. Stephen King describes writing as telepathy, the conjuring of mental imagery across time and distance: ‘All the arts depend upon telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation.’ George R.R. Martin has praised the novelist’s ability to build worlds on a scale beyond even the screen magic of special effects: ‘Whenever I turned in a script it was a common scene where they would say, ‘George, this is great but it’s too big and expensive; you need to cut it down. You currently have 126 characters—we have a budget for six.’ When I went back to prose, there were suddenly no limits: I could write something huge with all the characters I wanted, with battles, dragons, and immense settings.’ And the poet Wallace Stevens bid adieu to his career with a poem that envisioned his collected works as a world of his making—a ‘planet on the table’.
Romantic poets and letting x happen
The Romantic poets seem to have been especially captivated by this idea. Romantic poetry abounds with passages that say, essentially, ‘let x happen’. For example, Wordsworth often uses this imperative to present natural phenomena: ‘let the aged tree uprooted lie’; ‘let the Moon hear, emerging from a cloud’; ‘let the Moon/ Shine upon thee in thy solitary walk;/ And let the misty mountain-winds be free/ to blow against thee’; ‘let the redbreast hop from stone to stone’;
And long as he can wander, let him breathe
The freshness of the valleys; let his blood
Struggle with frosty air and winter snows;
And let the chartered wind that sweeps the heath
Beat his grey locks against his withered face.
As the Wordsworth scholar Paul Fry has noted, this poetic gesture is also an arrogation of creative power, or rather an insistence on the creative power of words: an imitation of the famous creating words Fiat lux, ‘Let there be light’. Still, the best spin on the motif may be a mordant passage from Byron’s Don Juan—one that suggests that we’re lucky to have limits to our ability to conjure with words, and that reminds us that Byron was, as the kids say, savage:
‘Let there be light! said God, and there was light!’
‘Let there be blood!’ says man, and there’s a sea!