Magic by Any Other Name

Liraz: [..] let's just say "polarity torsion does it", translate that to "it's very expensive magic", and leave it at that.

This is when a work has an intangible element that is obviously supposed to be magic, but is explicitly not called that. Maybe the word "magic" doesn't exist in their universe, maybe Agent Scully is using Insistent Terminology — yet whatever power they're using lets them levitate, throw fireballs and anything else that standard-issue Fantasy magic can do. This trope also applies to works where a practiced mystical art such as alchemy, tarot cards or ninjutsu has been broadened to the point where it functions as all-purpose magic.

In a Science Fiction setting, Magic from Technology and "psionics" are favorite stand-bys along with Minovsky Physics, possibly with a "quantum" or "nano" tacked on for good measure. If Everything Is Online, Hollywood Hacking may be utilized as well. Sufficiently Advanced Aliens that have evolved to the point where the physical laws of reality no longer apply to them (such as The Doctor or Q) generally do not count unless their powers are something Puny Humans can learn. Sometimes, a more limited power may turn into this over time, due to abuse of New Powers as the Plot Demands.

See Also Sufficiently Analyzed Magic when Magic is treated as like a science. See also: Not Using the Z Word, A Mech by Any Other Name.


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    Anime & Manga 

    Comic Books 
  • In the Valiant Comics titles set in the 41st Century (Magnus: Robot Fighter, Rai and the Future Force and Psi-Lords), "ectotheric energy" is used by some people to achieve the effect of "magic", even though it is in reality a variation of Psychic Powers and is scientifically comprehensible. "Necromancy" occurs in many titles from the 20th Century, and is even more overtly expressed as a kind of "magic" (obviously, given the name), although it too is really psychic in nature.

    Fan Works 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Star Wars: The Force, right down to being split between Light and Dark magic. While there's a minor bit of Doing In the Wizard— Obi-Wan initially presents it as "an energy field" generated by living beings, and the prequels infamously include a Voodoo Shark involving micro-organisms in the bloodstream, for all functional purposes, it's magic.
  • In The Matrix, bending the rules of physics while jacked into the computer world is ostensibly just hacking a program, but tends to be accorded mystical significance. Then Neo starts controlling machines in the real world with his mind alone....

  • The Wheel of Time: The One Power, which is segregated by sex, with males using saidin and females saidar. Using the Power is called channeling. The Big Bad has his own flavor, called the True Power. Then there are miscellaneous bits of Outside Context Magic floating around, like dudes who can talk to wolves, Ogier Treesinging, Dreamwalking, and Min's aura vision. All of it is clearly magical, but the word "magic" is never used; the closest they come is when Aes Sedai (female users of the One Power) are occasionally called "witches" as a pejorative.
  • The Sharing Knife: Ground (Lakewalkers specifically dislike the term magic.)
  • Brandon Sanderson's "cosmere" multiverse in general uses this; individual systems of Functional Magic are referred to by their names, and the term "magic" hardly ever comes up. The exception is in The Stormlight Archive, where one magic system is called "the Old Magic". In The Alloy of Law, allomancy is referred to as magic a few times. By contrast, the multiverse's resident Meta Guy, in the appendix of the same book, seems to refer to all forms of magic as "investiture", but exactly what this means is not yet explained.
  • The King Killer Chronicle: Sympathy, not to be confused with "Naming". If you know the true name of something you can command it, but if you don't then you can find something to represent it and use your willpower to force what happens to this to happen to that. Sympathy is seen as magic by many people in-universe, but people who actually use it insist that it isn't.
  • Played with in the Mediochre Q Seth Series. Some people occasionally do call it magic, but most get quite uppity about the fact that it's properly called 'mancy'.
  • Strength & Justice firmly assures that everyone's powers in the books are called "dynas" (short for "dynamism"), but at several points magic circles are said to appear when a dyna is in use, and the history of the city very clearly states that the users are all with an innate magical capability. It's a bit unclear as to what it is exactly.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Doctor Who:
    • The Carrionites — witches who used what the Doctor insisted was not magic, but physics based on words rather than numbers.
    • It also has Block Transfer Computations — complex mathematical equations that were never openly compared to magic, but the most blatant use of them (at least until the novels decided that TARDISes were made out of them) involved a planet of monastic aliens chanting arcane formulae to reshape reality.
    • A funny lampshade (or is it a reference) is made in the Tenth Doctor's episode "The Girl in the Fireplace", where he says that the window they're looking through to XVIII century France is a "spatial-temporal hyperlink".
      Rose: What's that mean?
      The Doctor: No idea, I just made it up. Didn't want to say "magic door".

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer 40,000: The Warp and psionics, but Chaotic practitioners don't shy from calling themselves wizards. As a comparison, in the Warhammer universe — as befitting fantasy — the Warp is unashamedly magic.
  • New World of Darkness:
  • In Nomine: Songs and Sorcery, one of the rulebooks notes that many of those in the know will get annoyed with anybody calling Songs "magic", and some will also get annoyed about using that term for Sorcery. Also you don't "cast" Songs, you perform them.
  • Psionics in Dungeons & Dragons can fall somewhere in or near this trope depending on the edition and variant rules — there are various degrees of magic/psionics transparency, and while the default in the arguably most popular incarnation is near-full transparency to the point that psionics is pretty much (and explicitly is in some settings) just a weird form of accessing and using magic (anti-magic areas shuts down psionics, resistance against psionic powers also provides resistance against spells, etc), at the extreme end psionics is entirely unaffected by stuff that affects magic and vice versa while still having all the same magic-like powers.

    Video Games 
  • The Lord of the Rings Online: Rune-Keepers and Lore-Masters, to get around the fact that there are canonically only five wizards in all of Middle-Earth.note 
  • Mass Effect: Biotics. It's basically telekinesis and kinetic energy bolts by another name - extremely detailed justifications, but in the end, its still lift spells. All of the advanced technology in the setting works off the same principles.
  • Phantasy Star: It's an ostensibly Space Opera and Planetary Romance, but ESP and "techniques" are functionally magic, with true magic being generally considered to be a rare lost art which only a select few can wield.
  • Secret of Evermore: Had alchemy, in what was essentially a VR simulation.
  • Spore: Any of the archetypes' superpowers qualify.
  • StarCraft: Psionics (Complete with glowing hands in the sequel even though it is supposed to be a mental power.)
  • Star Ocean: Heraldry, Symbology, Runeology, Whateverology... Justified in-universe as being programming code—the universe is actually an MMORPG, and magic is really just the AI hacking the system, and the eponymous symbols and runes are the game's code.
  • Xenogears, Xenosaga, and Xenoblade: Ether. At least in the case of Xenosaga, a lot of this is explicitly stated to be nanobots in the environs being somehow influenced by the characters. The effects are still just like magic.
  • The Matrix Online: Hacking. Building on the Matrix films' exploration of Magic from Technology, the game introduces an entire character class built around casting spells by hacking into the Matrix's code from within. Every "spell" is accompanied by an explosion of green binary code, just to remind players that it's not really magic.
  • In the Shinobi series, "ninjutsu" is the name generally used to describe special magical attacks based on fire, lightning, etc.
  • Inindo has ninjutsu as one of the three types of magic, consisting of Elemental Powers.

    Web Animation 
  • RWBY: Subverted. Word of God states that Dust was used in place of magic to intentionally avoid using the word during their RTX panel. However, since then, he, and the rest of the staff, have freely described certain characters as "mages". And as it turns out, there are literal magic users in this world whose powers are not related to Dust or Aura. And one of them happens to be the Big Bad...

    Web Comics 
  • Girl Genius:
    • The Spark. Semi-example. The machines are powered by science, but you have to be born with the mysterious "spark" to make them work, and once you do, you can kind of bend the laws of physics. It's not clear to what extent, though, since the technology is never clearly explained.
    • The old stories and legends of the setting's current Steam Punk era include magic-using figures (explicitly as ancestors to the "modern" scientists), hinting that the Spark may indeed be some kind of Reality Warper power which manifests through the individual's understanding of how the world works (i.e. people used to believe in magic, so Sparks did magic, science has replaced that worldview, so Sparks do science).
    • Before the main plot kicks off and keeps him busy, the Baron used his (very limited) free time working on a side project where he was actually experimenting on the brains of Sparks (namely those who were too dangerous to let live anyway) to try to determine the origin of the phenomenon.
  • Initally, Tales of the Questor used "Lux" and "magic" indiscriminately. Then they decided to ban the latter term and stop styling themselves “wizards” because it's only magic to other people, and those go by the principle most monotheistic religions have that Magic Is Evil.
  • Gunnerkrigg Court: Ether; etheric science. A case of insistent terminology by the Court, as opposed to the creatures of the forest.
  • In Unsounded, the world's Functional Magic is called "pymary". Word of God justifies this, though, saying that the word "magic" implies something mystical and unknown. Pymary may look supernatural to us, but in the world of Unsounded, it's an ordinary fact of life.
  • The Story of Anima, Anima is a mysterious force emitted by all individuals. Its exact nature is unknown; in fact, it's only called Anima because the theory that it's Soul Power is the most popular one. While normally it can only be wielded through the aid of Catalysts, some people, known as Animus, are capable of harnessing their own Anima into unique super powers.

    Web Original 
  • At no point in Funny Business are Jeannette's Reality Warper powers called magic, even though that's what most people the characters' ages would think to call the ability to ignore the laws of physics at will. They're generically called her "abilities" or "powers" instead.
  • The debate between magic-users and scientists in the Whateley Universe whether magic is just "psychic powers" or whether psychics in turn are just this trope keeps going. In the meantime, a new approach called "pattern theory" offers potential insight into where superpowers in the setting come from in general, but is still very much in its embryonic stage as well as apparently nigh incomprehensible to most people.
  • Prolecto has the abilities of angels, demons, and members of certain sects of the Survivalist Project. Like Kayla.

    Western Animation 
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender: Bending. Lampshaded in the very first episode:
    Sokka: Why is it that every time you play with magic water, I get soaked?
    Katara: It's not magic, it's waterbending.
    Sokka: Yeah, yeah, whatever.

Alternative Title(s): Not Using The M Word