The magic words

Today I’m going to talk about magic words.

“Hang on a minute,” I hear you cry. “Ein minuten, bitte! You just said not even a month ago that there are no magic bullets, and now you’re saying there are magic words?! What gives?”

Here’s what gives. There may not be any actual magic words…but words themselves are magic.

Have you ever been talking with a friend and, without meaning to, said something that so perfectly encapsulated your thoughts that the conversation just paused for a moment to let it sink in? Have you ever looked back a few pages (or a few years) in your journal and found a phrase that was so beautiful that it inspired a whole new journal entry all on its own? Have you ever read a book that seemed like it was written specifically for you, or even to you like a novel-length letter? Have you ever heard or told the perfect joke for the moment you’re in? Have you ever heard exactly what you needed to hear from another person, in exactly the moment you needed to hear it?

That’s part of what I mean by words being magic. Words can transform an ordinary moment into an extraordinary one. The difference between a good story and an amazing one can be the words used to tell it. Mark Twain, likely the preeminent wordsmith in US history, once said “the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” That quote summarizes one of the major duties and highest joys of my work as an editor: helping people find their right(est) words.

But words have magic in other ways, too.

When you read the title of this post, I’m guessing a few words popped immediately into your head. Maybe words like “please” and “thank you” (we all learned those magic words in kindergarten, right?), but also words like “Alacazam!” “Hocus pocus!” “Wingardium Leviosa!” or “Klaatu barada nikto!” And of course, the magic word most commonly called the magic word: “Abracadabra!”

Now follow me here. When editing an article for writer Roman Korver recently, I ran across this fact: the ancient Aramaic phrase evra kedavra translates to “with my language, I create.” J.K. Rowling has confirmed that the killing curse avada kedavra is also Aramaic, meaning “let the thing be destroyed.” It is in fact avada kedavra that is the true root word of Abracadabra, the “magic word,” though the original use of that Aramaic phrase was in destroying disease, not people.

Evra kedavra: with my words, I create. Avada kedavra: with my words, I destroy. Abracadabra: the “magic word.”

Words have power.

With our words, we create and destroy our realities.

Think about it.

When was the last time you made a mistake and reflexively said “idiot!” to yourself?

When was the last time you looked at your bank account and said “I’m never going to have enough money?”

When was the last time you looked at your business, your relationship, your side hustle, your life, and said “I’m not good enough?”

When you say those things, what do you see in your life? And when you make a conscious effort to change those negative and self-critical words to more positive and accepting ones, what changes in your life do you see?

Evra kedavra. Avada kedavra. Abracadabra.

The most powerful life coaches and gurus I know have this idea on lockdown. They police their own words and the words of their clients, sometimes pretty harshly, in an effort to create better lives through better words. Some of these people are very woo-woo, some are very pragmatic, but they all know this power of words. And you know who else knows it?

Happy people.

There are studies showing this is true (Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman, talks about several of them), but just in my own experience, I know that when things are going well, I am happiest when I say things like “I’m really proud of myself for getting here” and “This is the way my life naturally works” rather than “This can’t last” and “Damn, I hope I don’t screw this up like I did last time.”

Similarly, when things aren’t going well, I find it easier to persevere and remain positive when saying things like “I’ve got this, I don’t know how yet but I’ll figure it out” and “I got through the last struggle okay, I’ll make it through this one too” instead of “I don’t think I can do this anymore” and “I can’t believe I fucked things up again.”

And the more I use the first kinds of words instead of the second ones, the more I choose evra kedavra over avada kedavra, the more easily I get through the tough times and enjoy the good ones. The happier I make my words, the happier I get to be.

I’m not talking about being a Pollyanna or closing my eyes to reality. When times are tight or I make a mistake, I know I have to step up and take responsibility for myself. But as I do so, I have the ability to use magic words to create my reality, and I get to do it in real time, every moment.

And so do you.

Evra kedavra and avada kedavra are a true dichotomy. They’re Harry and Voldemort, Gandalf and Sauron, good music and Justin Bieber. In the end, neither can live while the other survives.

The choices are yours, and yours alone.

What will your magic words be?

  • Jason Moore

    Great article! I usually pick one word or a short phrase every year to live by and keep in mind when things get tough. In the past I’ve used ‘Experiences’ (for focusing on an experience driven life) and ‘Riches’ both to increase wealth and live a richer life. Hope the road i treating you well!

    • James M. Ranson

      Thanks, Jason! Great to hear from you, bro. I really like that idea–my word this year is “Becoming.” Let’s talk soon!

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  • D Halverson

    That’s awesone and clever. Especially as a linguist, I dig your word play.

    • James M. Ranson

      Thanks so much! Wordplay is my second-favorite kind of play.

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