Hi! Welcome to “Dusty Phrases.” You will find below an ancient phrase in one language or another, along with its English translation. You may also find the power to inspire your friends or provoke dread among your enemies.
For other examples, visit HERE:
When I hear a word used, throughout my life, I like to learn where it came from and what it means. A lot of “magic” words have murky origins. This one is no different.
Meriam-Webster states that the word is a nonsense word, of unknown origin.
ala·ka·zam variants or less commonly alacazam ˌa-lə-kə-ˈzam
used as an invocation of magical power or to indicate an instantaneous transformation or appearance that occurs by or as if by magic
He is unlikely to be judged kindly by subway and bus riders if they do not see—alakazam !—quick improvement in fraying service.—Clyde Haberman, New York Times, 30 Oct. 2009
earlier alagazam, a nonsense word (of obscure origin)
First Known Use
1902, in the meaning defined above
I ran into a lot of trouble digging up more of a history for this word until I stumbled across a very helpful article, HERE, which cited sources widely.
The earliest form of the word is alagazam and it is suggested by the following (facetious) use in a street name (in the Daily evening bulletin, San Francisco, 1881):
Camp Capitola. Description of a New Seaside Resort in Santa Cruz County… The party who laid out the streets..gave vent to his facetious bent in naming them. Glancing at the names..are seen Fishbone avenue, Alagazam street, Rat Tail alley and Soda Water avenue.
The Oxford English Dictionary also adds that the form Alagazam is also attested earlier in popular music, earliest as the title of composition first released as a ragtime piano score and subsequently published with lyrics:
The theme and title of this composition suggested itself to the writer during a trip to the South where he saw a colored regiment, who, while marking time during drill..were uttering a peculiar refrain which sounded like—Alagazam! Alagazam! Alagazam! Zam! Zam!
1902 A. Holzmann ‘Alagazam!’ Cake Walk, March and Two Step 3
In the book Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons: The Origins of English in Ten Words (by Paul Anthony Jones), it is mentioned that there is a popular folk etymology claiming that the word is somehow derived from the Arabic al qasam, meaning ‘the oath’, in fact the true origin of alakazam is considered a mystery.
It is also mentioned in the book Magic Words: A Dictionary (By Craig Conley):
This word has its roots in an Arabic incantation.133 A similar-sounding Arabic phrase, Al Qasam, means “oath.”
Because Alakazam is a proper name, it may have originally been used as a magic word invoking the powers of a particular person named Alakazam.134
Alakazam has also been traced to a Hindu word meaning “flawless” and a spell intended “to stave off pain while performing some great act of physical endurance.”135
133 John Skoyles and Dorion Saga, Up Ann Dragons (2002)
134 Terry O’Connor, “Word for Word,” PlateauPress.com (2004)
135 TheMagicCafe.com (2005)
The book Magic Words: A Dictionary offers much more details about alakazam and all other magic words/phrases. It also gives an explanation about the word Ala which is part of Alakazam and some other magic words.
Ala not only appears in several magic words (like alakazam, alakazee, a-la peanut butter sandwiches, and alikazoola) but also can be a magic word on its own. Ala is the name of a dangerous demon that envelopes people, mentioned in antiquated Mesopotamian magical texts.
It is notable that the late 19th and early 20th century printed references to the word seem to be done with the idea that readers would understand the meaning. This implies that the word was in use, widely, at the time. It is likely in my opinion that the magic word here simply took a long while to migrate from verbal use to printed use. The theories regarding its foreign language origin seem directionally accurate, in my opinion. Perhaps this is a rather ancient word. It seems fitting, given its use, that its origins are clouded in mystery.
You must log in to post a comment.