Making Up Magic Words

In the spirit of Joni’s recent post about inventing, I’d like to point out different approaches authors have taken to signifying magical happenings in their stories and talk about which way works best.

It’s pretty difficult to make up words without giving your reader the impression that the words are indeed made up (Maze Runner, anyone?) I think that’s why magic words that are pure invention come off sounding a little cheesy. Perhaps that’s why Rowling based some of her magic words on Latin. Accio is Latin for “I summon,” diffindo is Latin for “I divide,” and levicorpus combines the Latin for “light” and “body.” Of course, Rowling also uses words like alohomora (an unlocking spell), which sounds distinctly made up but is a rather playful combination of the Hawaiian words “aloha” and “mora” which may translate as “goodbye lock.”

Not all magic has to be based on Latin. The Theodosia Throckmorton books, about a girl who encounters curses in a London museum, use Egyptian magic. Words like heka and mut lend this magic an exotic but authentic feel. You can read more about the author’s (R. L. LaFevers) research into Egyptian magic at the Enchanted Inkpot.

There are a couple of ways to avoid use magic words at all. In the Septimus Heap books, magic spells are not directly spoken but alluded to. All magical objects and occurrences are capitalized and bolded as in “She Called a dolphin” and “Alice’s ghost Appeared.” My organization-obsessed brain loves this method, but it might leave some people wishing they knew exactly what transpired when the character Called the dolphin. Did she say a special word? Wave her arms? Pick up a phone? It’s been awhile since I read these books so maybe I’m just forgetting the finer details.

The Flora Segunda novels also avoid revealing exact magic words. Flora uses “Semiote Verbs,” words so powerful they induce magical happenings. But the author, Ysabeau Wilce, signifies these words with something resembling webdings–she puts a line of unpronounceable symbols in quotation marks. I think this is probably my favorite method of conveying a magical spell because it looks terribly magical. But a young reader can’t exactly reenact his favorite scenes without some serious imaginative work.

Which way of signifying magic do you think works best? Which authors have created your favorite magic words?

Parker Peevyhouse uses her cell phone to cast Lumos

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Making Up Magic Words

  1. I think Rowling and LaFevers have the right idea, mixing real words from other languages to create their magic. Made up words that make no sense (or that have other known meanings) totally throw me out of the story. Maze Runner and Leviathan both drove me nuts for this very reason (among others, I must add!).

    • Parker Peevyhouse

      I suppose the most important thing is for the reader not to be taken out of the story by whatever magical construct appears.

  2. Natalie Aguirre

    I agree that magical words are great with spells. I like combining words of different languages because it’s fun and not wanting to copy J.K. Rowling by using all latin.

  3. I love the Flora books. I find not just the magic system, but the world building word choices fun in those titles.

    • Parker Peevyhouse

      Yes, there is a lot of made-up vernacular that’s really fun. I love when Flora calls someone “snapperhead.” On the other hand, sometimes the slang feels a little juvenile in comparison with the more mature themes of the novels.

  4. I like the idea of using a different language (maybe because it’s what I’m doing). I’m using Old English . . . the trouble is making it friendly enough to pronounce. ;-)

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