Five Magic Word Origins

Posted on 06/07/2010
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So, sure. We’ve all had those days where we wish we could say a couple words, wave a wand, and all our problems would be—hey presto! Gone. And we’ve all probably wished this when our mom/grandparent/sibling/aunt/father/annoying boss patronizingly asked us to “use the magic word….!” (No? Only me? Well, work with me here). Below is a list of magic words and their origins you might try for the next time you’re feeling intrepid (or more than a little ticked off).

1. Sim Sala Bim

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A prime example of the extents to which some magicians will go to seem exotic, this whimsical phrase was first used in magic by Dante the Magician, a.k.a Harry August Jansen one of the most well known magicians of the early 20th century, whose death is commonly considered the end of the “Golden Age” of magic. He utilized the phrase as a means of acknowledging applause, as well as for the title of his touring magic shows. Apparently, in typical audience whoring fashion, he claimed that the words meant “a thousand thanks”, and that the more people applauded, the more ‘Sim Sala Bim’ thanked them. Although this nonsensical combination actually originates as filler in German nursery rhymes, including one specific folk melody called “High on a branch a cow”, this phrase grew to be representative of the integration (and manipulation) of the mysterious Eastern culture, specifically Indian, in an effort to employ a sense of mysticism in illusionist’s acts. This device of Eastern supernatural typecasting in Western culture, and in fact these exact words, were used as early as the medieval period, in the play Robyn Hode: A Mummer’s Play, wherein the Turkish magician Saracen states: “I have here a potion, brought from the east. It is called the golden elixir, and with one drop I will revive Robyn Hode with these magic words: ‘Sim Salabim.’ Rise up young man and see how your body can walk and sing.” This othering attachment has continuously followed sim sala bim, as clearly evidenced by the Jonny Quest series, with the highly stereotypical sidekick figure Hadji, who additionally adopted these magic words when he performed his mystical feats—levitation, snake charming, hypnotism, and other magical qualities every Indian must possess (the producers never having bothered, apparently, attempted to look up the very WASPy origins of the words).

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