Created By: rbx5 on July 28, 2009 Last Edited By: AymNaija on December 26, 2010
Troped

Words Do Not Make the Magic

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Trope
This trope occurs when a character attempts to accomplish a spell or mystical feat that another character has previously successfully accomplished by merely copying or repeating their words/actions and failing for the titular reason.


Examples

Anime and Manga

Comics
  • In The DCU, Johnny Quick's sidekick Tubby Watts tried reciting Johnny's magical formula of ("3X2(9YZ)4A") [[hottip:*:It is a nonsense formula, do not bother searching for it.]] in order to give himself superspeed like Johnny's. It failed. A later Retcon established that the 'formula' was actually a personal mantra that would only work for Johnny (and eventually his daughter).

Film

Literature
  • Mentioned in Making Money: the golems won't obey orders even spoken in their native tongue, unless the person giving the order is dressed like an Umnian high priest in golden robes, aka Moist's suit.
    • Also, the actual chanting done by the Wizards in the Necromancy department is meaningless, any old chanting will do as long as it sounds the part.
    • Same thing in Wyrd Sisters as the names of instruments of demon summoning are immaterial as long as the general sound and intent is there.
    • In I Shall Wear Midnight; a very powerful but untrained witch casts a spell that other witches think is nonsense, overlapping with Achievements in Ignorance.
  • Present in The Dresden Files. Wizards intentionally use nonsense words for magic, because words with real meaning make it hard to control.
  • The time in Harry Potter when Harry tried to use the Cruciatus Curse on Bellatrix Lestrange would definitely work though; it was really weak because he didn't actually want to hurt her all that much and any Unforgiveable Curse requires a desire to hurt the target.
    • Another Harry Potter example, it is made quite clear that a wand and an incantation do not magic make, you have to be a wizard to use magic. Filch trying to learn magic via Quickspell would be an good example.
    • The fact that wizards have to go to Wizarding School. You can't just say the words and wave the wand, you have to know how to do it.
    • And for yet another Harry Potter example, though it's an aversion, Parseltongue (the ability to speak with snakes) apparently is not magical as such. Ron is able to open the Chamber of Secrets by just making the same sounds that Harry did when he opened it.

Live-Action TV
  • Subverted in a seventh season episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Willow begins to struggle through a complicated spell in Latin before saying "SCREW IT, I suck at Latin, OK?" and proceeded to make the spell work in English because she is just that Bad Ass at magic.
  • Charmed only a magical being, such as an actual, magical, witch, can cast spells. If a mortal tries it, the mortal is just speaking a rhyme.
    • A Subversion in the episode Animal Pragmatism, episode 13 season 2, a group of [[Muggles mortals]] (mortal= non magical "normal" human) cast a spell by playing a tape recording of Phoebe chanting a spell, and it worked, because Phoebe did the rhyming.
  • A variation appears in an episode of Xena where several people attempt to cast a magic spell from a scroll, to no effect. Gabrielle deduces that they are using the wrong meter and accidentally casts the spell herself. Hilarity Ensues.

Religion

Tabletop RPG
  • In most games that have verbal spell components, either required or voluntary (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons and Shadowrun, respectively), a mundane person speaking the words will have no effect at all: you have to have magical power/knowledge for the spell to work.
  • Similarly in Mage: The Ascension.

Video Games
  • Myst: Gehn tries to use the D'ni art of writing linking books without really understanding the full effects of the phrases that he uses, resulting in links to unstable worlds.

Web Original
  • Related, if not identical, is this AI koan from the Jargon File:
    A novice was trying to fix a broken Lisp machine by turning the power off and on.
    Knight, seeing what the student was doing spoke sternly: "You can not fix a machine by just power-cycling it with no understanding of what is going wrong."

Western Animation
  • A recent example is the episode of Jackie Chan Adventures where Jade attempts to use a cult's spell against them by repeating the words they use to cast it, and fails because she's not a member.
    • In another episode, Captain Black once read Uncle's books and in trying to perform a spell turned himself into a frog.

Real Life
  • Cargo cults, pacific island tribes whose islands were used as bases by various militaries in WWII. From the islanders' point of view, these military people didn't have to farm their own food - instead they built an airbase and called for food and other supplies to be brought down in cargo planes. After the soldiers left, the islanders tried to call for supplies themselves and built their own airbases; but since they were only copying appearance and didn't understand the underlying technology, the planes never came...
Community Feedback Replies: 34
  • July 28, 2009
    Alkthash
    Kinda present in The Dresden Files. Wizards intentionally use nonsense words for magic, because words with real meaning make it hard to control.
  • July 28, 2009
    AymNaija
    • On Yu Yu Hakusho a demon named Rando attempted to use a shrinking spell on Yusuke, but failed because it only works if he hears it and his ears were full of algae. Might not count because Rando was the one who used it both when it worked and when it didn't.
    • The time in Harry Potter when Harry tried to use the Cruciatus Curse on Bellatrix Lestrange would definitely work though; it was really weak because he didn't actually want to hurt her all that much.
  • July 28, 2009
    AymNaija
    • Fright Night
      Jerry Dandridge: You have to have faith for that to work, Mr. Vincent!
  • July 28, 2009
    Micah
    • Related, if not identical, is this AI koan from the Jargon File:
      A novice was trying to fix a broken Lisp machine by turning the power off and on.
      Knight, seeing what the student was doing spoke sternly: "You can not fix a machine by just power-cycling it with no understanding of what is going wrong."
      Knight turned the machine off and on.
      The machine worked.
  • July 29, 2009
    rbx5
    Bump
  • July 30, 2009
    Reg Shoe
    Another Harry Potter example, it is made quite clear that a wand and an incantation do not magic make, you have to be a wizard to use magic. Filch trying to learn magic via Quickspell would be an good example.
  • July 30, 2009
    SevenMass
    • Charmed only a magical being, such as an actual, magical, witch, can cast spells. If a mortal tries it, the mortal is just speaking a rhyme.
      • In the episode Animal Pragmatism, episode 13 season 2, a group of mortals (mortal= non magical "normal" human) cast a spell by playing a tape recording of Phoebe chanting a spell, and it worked, because Phoebe did the rhyming.
  • July 30, 2009
    Unknown Troper
    bump
  • November 10, 2009
    rbx5
    Bumping again
  • November 11, 2009
    Game Chainsaw
    In Harry Potter, its notable that the other unforgivable curse, Avada Kedavra, the killing curse, has to have real intent behind it as well.
  • November 11, 2009
    Wacky Meets Practical
    On Wizards Of Waverly Place, the Russo kids always recite some sort of rhyme to cast a spell. However, it is implied by another character that it isn't necessary to recite a spell in order to cast one, that saying the words only makes casting the spell easier, but can be done just as well without having to say a thing.
  • November 30, 2009
    rbx5
    Bumping
  • November 30, 2009
    nmanma
    On Fist Of The North Star, a mook tries the Hokuto Shinken on Kenshiro, of all people, even daring to tell him "You're already dead" and count down the seconds to Kenshiro's death. Of course, it was the mook the one who was already dead.
  • November 30, 2009
    TheAdversary
    nothing to see here
  • November 30, 2009
    Unknown Troper
    A variation appears in an episode of Xena where several people attempt to cast a magic spell from a scroll, to no effect. Gabrielle deduces that they are using the wrong meter and accidentally casts the spell herself. Hilarity Ensues.
  • April 23, 2010
    dmh3000
    Bedknobs And Broomsticks, the man who invented the spells could not use them, but Angela Lansbury's character (It was her, right?) could because she actually believed in magic. It took a great deal of concentration before he could finally get one to work after being shown numerous times that magic existed.
  • April 24, 2010
    Arivne
    Tabletop RPG
    • In most games that have verbal spell components, either required or voluntary (e.g. Dungeons And Dragons and Shadowrun, respectively), a mundane person speaking the words will have no effect at all: you have to have magical power/knowledge for the spell to work.
  • April 24, 2010
    Chabal2
    Mentioned in Making Money: the golems won't obey orders even spoken in their native tongue, unless the person giving the order is dressed like an Umnian high priest in golden robes, aka Moist's suit.
  • April 24, 2010
    Unknown Troper
  • October 24, 2010
    SandmanXI
  • October 24, 2010
    CrypticMirror
    Also in Making Money the actual chanting done by the Wizards in the Necromancy department is meaningless, any old chanting will do as long as it sounds the part.

    Same thing in Wyrd Sisters as the names of instruments of demon summoning are immaterial as long as the general sound and intent is there.
  • October 24, 2010
    SandmanXI
    Should this be launched? rbx5 hasn't said anything in a while, but it's definitely got enough examples. If not, should someone (say me) make one identical to it so it can bloom again?
  • October 24, 2010
    randomsurfer
    A Harry Potter example (super to those already mentioned): the fact that wizards have to go to Wizarding School. You can't just say the words and wave the wand, you have to know how to do it.
  • October 24, 2010
    Kayube
    Myst: Gehn tries to use the D'ni art of writing linking books without really understanding the full effects of the phrases that he uses, resulting in links to unstable worlds.
  • October 24, 2010
    Taeraresh
    And for yet another Harry Potter example, though it's an inversion, Parseltongue (the ability to speak with snakes) apparently is not magical as such. Ron is able to open the Chamber of Secrets by just making the same sounds that Harry did when he opened it.
  • October 25, 2010
    Arivne
    rbx5, is this Up For Grabs?
  • October 25, 2010
    rhebus
    Real Life: Cargo cults, pacific island tribes whose islands were used as bases by various militaries in WWII. From the islanders' point of view, these military people didn't have to farm their own food - instead they built an airbase and called for food and other supplies to be brought down in cargo planes. After the soldiers left, the islanders tried to call for supplies themselves and built their own airbases; but since they were only copying appearance and didn't understand the underlying technology, the planes never came...
  • October 25, 2010
    CrypticMirror
  • October 25, 2010
    DaibhidC
    I'm not sure, but I think there's two related tropes here: 1) The spell must be recited by a magic user to work and Muggles can't do it. 2)The "spell" is meaningless and the power comes entirely from intent.

    While 2 obviously implies 1 (if the spell is meaningless, of course it's not going to work), the reverse isn't necessarily true; the spell might really require the words, but not just the words. There's a lot of implicit examples of this; A Dungeons And Dragons warrior could presumably observe the somatic and verbal components of a wizard spell and duplicate them, but it wouldn't do any good because he hadn't memorised the actual spell.

    An interesting example of 2 in I Shall Wear Midnight; a very powerful but untrained witch casts a spell that other witches think is nonsense, overlapping with Achievements In Ignorance.
  • October 25, 2010
    foxley
    In The DCU, Johnny Quick's sidekick Tubby Watts tried reciting Johnny's magical formula in order to give himself superspeed like Johnny's. It failed. A later Ret Con established that the 'formula' was actually a personal mantra that would only work for Johnny (and eventually his daughter).
  • October 25, 2010
    Stratadrake
    @Daibhid: Type number one isn't notable. Muggles are unable to comprehend magic by definition. Thus, of course they can't use it.
  • October 25, 2010
    AFP
  • November 13, 2010
    LKtheGreat
    Bump.
  • December 10, 2010
    AymNaija
    I think its ready to be launched now. Another Jackie Chan Adventures example, Captain Black once read Uncle's books and in trying to perform a spell turned himself into a frog.
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