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Words Do Not Make The Magic

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Jade: I know your magic words! [Starts chanting] [Nothing happens]
Magisters: Hahahahahahaha!
Jade: Come on already!
Magisters: Yon twain knoweth nothing about our magicks.
Jackie: That's what I've been trying to tell you!
Jackie Chan Adventures, "The Chan Who Knew Too Much"

Alice sees Bob successfully accomplish a spell or mystical feat and later attempts to accomplish the same spell or feat by merely copying or repeating their words and/or actions and fails for the titular reason. Usually occurs when it takes more than the Magical Incantation and Magical Gesture. The magic may be in another language that requires understanding before use. It may be because as a Muggle, Alice can't cast magic. Or By the Power of Grayskull! only works for Bob since only he has the power of Greyskull. Maybe the sun wasn't at the right height. Whatever the case even if the character is Awesome by Analysis, the feat won't work by observation.

The results of when a character uses a spell where more than the Magical Incantation matters will vary. There may simply be no effect or the spell could backfire. If a villain tries to use a hero's spell and fails due to lacking something necessary for success like The Power of Friendship, expect a "Reason You Suck" Speech. Aversions of this trope are rarely examples since then words do make the magic and it is a case of Magical Incantation works for anyone.

In Role-Playing Games the inability of Muggles to cast spells by repeating the words is standard. To have it otherwise would mess up the game balance.

Falls on the cynical end of the Power of Language scale. Compare/Contrast By the Power of Grayskull!, where the words do heavily matter but usually only certain characters can use the words successfully.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Bleach: Kido spells are spoken, but they only have effect if used by spiritual beings such as Soul Reapers.
  • In Fairy Tail, Laxus attempts to use Marakov's, his grandfather spell, Fairy Law, which targets anyone the user considers an enemy, to eliminate the entire guild. When it fails, despite having enough power and invoking it to activate, one of his friends reminds Laxus that his heart can't lie to his magic and the guild members are still his True Companions.
  • Fist of the North Star:
    • A mook tries to imitate the Hokuto Shinken Pressure Point attack 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, he had no any idea where to hit and how hard to kill someone. Instead, he unknowingly counted down to his own death from Kenshiro's attack that he failed to notice.
    • The minor Arc Villain Amiba made up his own style of Hokuto Shinken based upon his study of the power points required to use the style. However, it is clear he could not have known how to properly use attacks based upon the style. Additionally, when Amiba attempts to use his knowledge of power points to make himself stronger, the result causes his hands to be destroyed, allowing Kenshiro to finish him off.
  • In Mary and The Witch's Flower, when Peter asks Mary if they can undo the magic trapping by chanting from the Spell Book, Mary says that chanting won't work alone because you need to have actual magic powers.
  • The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service: Sasayama's Identical Ancestor (a Buddhist monk) tries to exorcize an evil sorcerer (Grigori Rasputin) with a mantra , who snarkily tells him the words only work if spoken by a true believer. An arrow pops up reading "it's true!" pointing at Sasayama's head.
  • Magic in Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid requires mana, so Kobayashi is unable to cast spells even though she has a deep understanding of magical theory from her programming background. Of course, this changes when she goes to the other world, which has a Background Magic Field.

    Comic Books 
  • In The DCU, Johnny Quick's sidekick Tubby Watts tried reciting Johnny's magical formula of ("3X2(9YZ)4A") note  in order to give himself Super-Speed 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).
    • Wally West got ahold of the formula in an attempt to become even faster. It worked (too well, in fact), but this is later established as being because he was already connected to the Speed Force, the mystical energy field that empowers all DCU speedsters, Johnny included.
  • In the "Irredeemable" Story Arc in Fantastic Four, Doctor Doom defeats the Four using magic (and a Deal with the Devil). He even locks Richards in his own spellbook library, secure in the knowledge that Mr. Fantastic cannot manage even the apprentice-level spell that would unlock the door. And he's right. Doctor Strange has to show Reed that magic requires admitting something about the self and one's relationship to higher powers, not just saying the right words.
  • PS238: The Magic Misfire version apparently happened off-screen when Toby, who has no superpowers, tried reading something in magic class:
    Toby: Didn't I try doing that?
    Ms. Vashti: Yes. One of the results was losing about a day and a half of your memory.
  • The Tomb of Dracula establishes early and often that just waving a cross or other holy symbol at Dracula doesn't help; you have to really believe to ward him off that way. Best seen when the atheist (or at least agnostic) Wolverine makes a cross with his claws, and it does nothing. However, Nightcrawler, a devout Christian, drives The Prince Of Darkness back with two sticks formed into the shape of a cross. Then when Dracula later tries to attack Kitty, he's repelled by her Star of David.
  • Demonstrated in Young Avengers when Prodigy (a former mutant whose power was to absorb knowledge from people around him) fakes out an extra-dimensional monster with a magic phrase and hand sign. He explains to Hulkling that knowing magic words doesn't give him the temperament to actually cast spells.

    Fairy Tales 
  • "The Troll's Daughter": Inverted; The troll changes his servant's form three times with a special poem. Upon seeing the troll's daughter, the boy-turned-fish remembers it and turns himself back so he can visit with her.
  • A popular take on the vampires' weakness to holy symbols is that it only works if the person holding it truly believes in the symbol's faith (or sometimes, only if the vampire does).

    Fan Works 
  • Child of the Storm explains this with the The Dresden Files reason that you need a) magical power, b) focus, c) intent, to make something actually happen - and with wandless magic, any words you use are just a mental construct to make it easier, the same way that a wand or a Magic Staff is just an aid to focus and concentration.
  • In Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, Harry assumes this is the case:
    You couldn't really need to say 'Wingardium Leviosa' in exactly the right way in order to levitate something, because, come on, 'Wingardium Leviosa'? The universe was going to check that you said 'Wingardium Leviosa' in exactly the right way and otherwise it wouldn't make the quill float?
    • A simple experiment shows he's Wrong Genre Savvy, and the words in fact do matter, right down to syllable length.
  • In The Last Ones Left, the Scoobies learn that D'Hoffryn and his vengeance demons don't require someone to say "I Wish" in order to use their powers, only that someone express regret and a desire to change things. As D'Hoffryn points out, "wish" is an English word and both he and several of his servants predate English significantly (Anyanka for example was born in the ninth century).

    Films — Animated 
  • Scooby-Doo! and the Witch's Ghost: When Ben Ravencroft discovers the titular ghost, Sarah Ravencroft, is Eviler than Thou, he attempts to reseal her in the book, only to discover those magic words only work for a Wiccan, forcing the member of the Hex Girls who practiced it to perform the spell. Also, when the Scooby gang get their hands on the book, Sarah mocks them and says it is useless to ordinary people.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The title character in Doctor Strange realizes right away that imitating Magical Gestures by rote would be just "waving [his] hands around", and that he needs to do "study and practice, years of it" before he can achieve proficiency in magic. However, he doesn't take the next step and realize that imitating the Magical Gestures exactly isn't necessary, and that his damaged hands aren't the barriers he thinks they are until a master who is actually missing a hand demonstrates for him.
  • Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the man who invented the spells from what he thought was a nonsense book could not use them, but Angela Lansbury's character, Miss Eglantine Price, could because she actually believed in magic. It took a great deal of concentration (and telling his reflection to believe in something for once in his life) before he could finally get one to work after being shown numerous times that magic existed.
    • Later, Miss Price gets a hold of the magic words on the MacGuffin that she had been searching for throughout the film...and they do not work. The man then explains that none of the magic words she had been using for her spells were the "real" words or preparations; he had found them but spiced them up a bit before selling them on. He suggests she tries the same (read: they all sing a song)- and it works.
  • Fright Night (1985): After one of the heroes tries to use a crucifix against the vampire to no effect, he learns that it's more difficult than that.
    Jerry Dandridge: You have to have faith for that to work, Mr. Vincent!
  • In Hellbound: Hellraiser II, the psychopathic psychologist uses a traumatized girl to open the puzzle box, thus summoning the Cenobites to Earth, figuring that this way it'll be the girl who gets dragged to Hell and not himself. But as Pinhead puts it, "It is not hands that call us, it is desire". They leave the girl in peace and go off in search of the one who truly summoned them.
  • In Nanny McPhee, upon entering Nanny McPhee's room, Simon finds her stick lying there, the one that she had previously used multiple times to do magic. He bangs it on the floor in much the same way (presumably to try and do some magic of his own), to no effect, except for her suddenly appearing in a previously-empty corner of the room, with a table, cup of tea, and a book in hand.

  • In The Belgariad, sorcery is powered and directed by the sorcerer's will: the spoken "spell" that causes the effects to manifest can be anything. The Archmage Belgarath uses mystical-sounding triggers and once scolds Garion as unprofessional for directing his sorcery with silly words like "Push!"
  • In The Bible, there is an account of non-believers who attempt to cast out a demon by repeating the words Paul used to successfully exorcise one. The demon, being a bit of a Deadpan Snarker, replies "Jesus I know about, and I know about Paul, but who are you?"
  • Shown from a mage's perspective in Roger Zelazny's second part of The Chronicles of Amber and in The Changing Land. Words are not the whole spell—they are just the trigger part, and without a properly readied magic, they are meaningless.
  • The second novel in The Dark is Rising series: Before Will Stanton reads the Book of Gramarye, Merriman tells him that only an Old One can use the spells and Words of Power in the book. Even if a human being could read the book he couldn't use them.
  • In the Discworld series, it's repeatedly noted that magic lies in the user's attitude and determination - chants, cauldrons, and blood offerings are generally there because of the Rule of Cool.
    • 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. Even then, this is only because they're trying to summon dead necromancers, who are big on tradition.
    • 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. Turns out a big copper ladle is quite useful for bopping an uncooperative demon.
    • 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.
  • The Dresden Files:
    • Present in The Dresden Files. The exact words themselves aren't as important, but the act of an incantation is still an important part of the spell, as much a part of the spell as pointing and drawing up power. Wizards like to use dead languages, or even nonsense—but consistent—words rather than real ones, to avoid the risk of accidentally misfiring.
    • The words are part of a personal, mental construct that a given mage uses to make the spell, and they seem to need a personal connection to the wizard. In a flashback scene, Harry is trying to start a fire with magic, and is using his teacher's words, and can't manage the actual spell until he makes up his more familiar "Flickum Bicus" incantation.
    • The reason Wizards use dead languages and nonsense words for their spells is that the incantation becomes linked with the spell in their mind, so if they use a word from a language they speak regularly, due to the mental equivalent of muscle memory they could burn their house down whenever they say "fire."
    • Harry at one point in Fool Moon uses a completely non-verbal spell, but isn't able to do much more than the minimum necessary to not die at the moment (something big and nasty had its hands around his neck), and he nearly died from the after-effects of the spell anyway.
  • The Goosebumps book How I Got My Shrunken Head has the protagonist getting a shrunken head, which has powers that work when he says certain words. But the powers had to be put inside him by his aunt first, so this no longer works when the magic is taken away.
  • Harry Potter:
    • The Cruciatus Curse Harry tried using on Bellatrix Lestrange did work, but due to his own lack of desire to hurt her, it was really weak in effect. It applies to all Unforgivable curses, as their user has to desire to hurt others for them to work at all, and without pure malice (which is quite different from the righteous fury that Harry tried to channel into his Cruciatus against Bellatrix) their effect will be less than desired.
    • In general, it is made quite clear that magic is more than just a wand and an incantation; you have to be a wizard to use magic. Filch trying to learn magic via Quickspell would be a 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. note 
    • Parseltongue (the ability to speak with snakes) is unique to a select few wizards, but the language itself is something anyone can speak if they know the words. Ron is able to open the Chamber of Secrets by just making the same sounds that Harry did when he opened it. He had no idea what he was saying but it worked because it was the sounds rather than the knowledge of the actual words that were required opened the door.
    • Rowling has stated that even less flashy magics, like potions-brewing or divination, can't be done by Muggles.
    • Two spells introduced in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban require the caster to think certain things;
      • Riddikulus (used to fight boggarts that turn into your worst fear) requires the caster to think of something funny happening to what they're afraid of.
      • Expecto Patronum needs you to focus on a happy memory in order to beat the happiness eating Dementors.
  • Inheritance Cycle: All spells are said in the old tongue, the language that has the true name for anything. Yet, you do not actually need the words for casting, they only help you focus, and they won't get you anywhere if you don't have the innate talent for magic anyway. This wordless magic comes as a surprise for Eragon in Ellesmera, when his opponent, although unable to speak, can still cast.
  • Journey to Chaos: Spells are nothing more than a Power Crutch. They help with focus but are ultimately unnecessary. What you really need for magic is to understand the magical theory behind the spells. Novices like Eric need them but experts like Basilard and Dengel do not.
    • A Mage's Power: Eric improvises a death spell by saying "From its toes to its head, make that monster dead!" but because he has no idea how necromancy works, it's an impotent rhyme.
  • In Ra, it's not enough to speak a spell. The mage must think through and understand it as well.
  • In the second Rivers of London book, Lindsey tries to copy one of Peter's spells, and he explains to her that you can't just say the words, you need intense practice and an innate ability. Which she does.
  • "The Staff in the Stone" by Garth Nix: Incantations are basically mnemonics to "safely recall exactly how the power must be called and used", but are neither necessary nor sufficient for magic — spellcasters need to have magical power and know how to use it.
  • In The Tygrine Cat, Mati realizes he's forgotten Etheleldra's chant upon trying to enter Fiåney on his own for the first time. However, Sparrow's mealtime song about "mackerel, mackerel, smoked and sweet" works just as well. He disregards using chants from then on.
  • A Wizard in Rhyme plays with this. Magic is treated as a neutral force that responds to any kind of symbol as a vehicle for the user's intent. Words aren't strictly necessary, but happen to be the most accessible, convenient, and reliable symbols to use, especially when arranged in verse. Thus, the use of verse is so prevalent that most spellcasters never bother with any other method.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In 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": a group of mortals (mortal= non magical "normal" human) accidentally find a loophole. They cast a spell by playing a tape recording of Phoebe chanting her edits to a spell they were researching, and it worked because Phoebe did the rhyming.
  • In Merlin, the second episode shows how Merlin struggles through a long night in order to master the spell he needs to save Arthur, even though he can say the Incantation properly, it's not enough for him to use that spell.
  • In the Supernatural episode "The Curious Case Of Dean Winchester", the Winchesters run into an Irish warlock called Patrick who takes years from people's lives with a deck of enchanted magic cards, and uses it to extend his own life indefinitely. When Dean loses 50 years in a gamble, he tries to reverse the process by breaking into Patrick's safe and stealing the cards. The warlock interrupts them and tells them not to bother.
    Patrick: The magic isn't in the cards, idiots. It's in the 900-year-old witch.
  • Xena: Warrior Princess: 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.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Dungeons & Dragons: verbal spell components, are sometimes required. A mundane person speaking the words will have no effect at all: you have to have magical power/knowledge for the spell to work.
    • Conversely, the "Silent Spell" feat allows a caster to disregard the verbal component and still have the spell take effect.
  • In Mage: The Awakening, people gain magic by having their souls joined to one of the Supernal Realms. The High Speech is a handy Power Crutch to make spells a bit more reliable, but without that connection, it can't be used or even reliably perceived.
  • Common in the Old World of Darkness, where performing magic almost always requires you to either be an inherently supernatural being or to had such a being bestow some of its power on you.
    • Verbal spell components spoken by Muggles have no effect in Mage: The Ascension. Even for the mages themselves, spell components are little more than props to help them shape reality with their Awakened will.
    • Demon: The Fallen explicitly notes that even though demons' evocations are performed by speaking special words of power encoded in the Lores, just repeating those words by rote isn't enough to perform an evocation - you need to have a deep spiritual understanding of what they mean, to the point where the knowledge shapes your very nature. Humans also can't perform evocations at all, though they can be given similar abilities by making a pact with a demon.
    • Averted in the "Sorcerer" supplement, which deals in limited (but still extremely useful) "linear magics" available to Muggles, where correct performance of the rituals is required.
  • In Shadowrun, magic words normally just make it easier for the magician to focus their mind; thus the words are personal, they often skip the words when they aren't stressed or otherwise distracted. However, in a sort of double aversion, their magic can break in such a way that the words are required… but the requirement is for the same "whatever you made up" words as before.
  • Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay: Knowledge of a Language of Magic is necessary but not sufficient to cast spells; a character also needs the ability to channel the Winds of Magic to power those spells.

    Video Games 
  • The Thu'um in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It is possible for ordinary mortals to learn it, though it takes a lifetime of training and effort to master it. Anyone without that training would not be able to make the Shouts do anything. The Dragonborn can take shortcuts because he/she has the soul of a Dragon, and even the Dragonborn has to study the words of power and absorb the souls of other Dragons first. Ulfric Stormcloak himself was taught by the Greybeards to learn the ways of the Thu'um, but used what he knew (the Unrelenting Force shout) to assert himself as the "true" High King of Skyrim and reestablish Skyrim as independent from Imperial puppet kings. The thing about Dragon Shouts is you have to understand deeply what they mean, not just the translation but the real essence of the word.
  • In King of Dragon Pass, a lot of factors decide whether a decision in a heroquest is successful. One of them is saying "the right thing" (usually there are multiple valid options), but the heroquester's skill, their ability to act in-character, and the culture of the group that's casting the heroquest. If a ferocious warrior tribe chooses diplomatic actions, they're likely to fail regardless of everything else.
    "You know the words, but you do not understand the mystery."
  • Myst: Gehn believes that this is the case, thinking that only those with D'ni blood can use The Art. The people of Terahnee believe the same thing, that Ahrotahntee (book-worlders, people native to an age) cannot use the Art. They're wrong; it's proven time and again that what matters are the books, ink, and words used, not the nature of the person writing them. Indeed for Gehn, it's something he should have known since his mother was a full-blooded Ahrotahntee (native to Earth in fact) and she was perfectly capable of the Art. Then again, cognitive dissonance is pretty much Gehn's stock in trade. It's also a literal case: Gehn tries to treat the Art as a science, and tries to use "formulae" of specific words, and delete "unnecessary" ones from the Ages that he links to in his writing (in order to save his ink). Unfortunately for Gehn, deleting "unnecessary" words tends to make his Ages dangerously unstable. His son Atrus understands the Art far better, and is able to not only produce stable Ages as a result but can even use his writing to slow the decay of unstable Ages like Riven.
  • In Tales of the Abyss, Tear needed to understand the meaning of the fonic hymns before she could use them whether she knew the words or not.

    Visual Novels 
  • In Fate/stay night, the words used in spells do not have any power of their own. Rather, they are used as a form of self-hypnosis which makes it easier for mages to activate their Magic Circuits in a consistent way.

    Web Comics 
  • Mentl in The Challenges of Zona, when he arrives in Erogenia, begins to learn about his own innate magical abilities, which are tied to his abilities as a musician. As a result, he is able to use lyrics to his favorite rock-and-roll songs as powerful spells; he once incinerated an attacker by singing "Great Balls of Fire" by Jerry Lee Lewis, and a counterpart of his from the future incorporated the lyrics to "Get Back" as a time-travel spell.
  • Played with in morphE. All of the spells in the series are standard and can be taught or read about in books. However, casting is tied closely to how the mage views reality and magic. Tyler can only cast by comparing what he is doing to fictional precedent. Billy can only cast by exerting his will over reality. Curio "codes" his spells using a mentality of adjusting the attributes and statistics of the world around him. Despite this, they are all learning the same school of magic. Tyler and Amical even use the exact same spells, though Tyler does not need to physically touch people like Amical does.
  • Parodied in this Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic.

    Web Original 
  • This 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.
    • In Real Life of course, millions of people fix machines just this way, every day. Half the trick to successfully solving a problem by power-cycling is remembering that there is a difference between power-cycling and rapidly hitting the power switch/button; the other half is knowing when you've got a problem you can solve by power-cycling.
  • In the Ben 10 "Hero High" series by Mr. Evil, Alexander Sovereign, while studying Gwen's magic, realizes that the words she speaks to use her magic mean nothing. He points out they are only a way to focus the power to what she wants it to do and after training long enough can use the magic to do what she wants without words.

    Western Animation 
  • Jackie Chan Adventures:
    • 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.
  • Zig-zagged in the The Scooby-Doo Show episode "Scared A Lot In Camelot." The gang discovers an organ as the source of the ghosts that Merlin (a perp in disguise, of course) is able to conjure up. Shaggy and Scooby confront Merlin and the Black Knight as Shaggy chants "Abracadacra!" Daphne presses a key on the organ, making the projections of ghosts appear. But when Scooby says "Rippety rappety roo!", Daphne gets her finger caught between organ keys, producing nothing.
  • In Sofia the First/Elena of Avalor, when Elena is freed from the Amulet of Avalor, the first thing she does is attempt to capture Shuriki in the amulet as revenge. She has the same wand and uses the same spell, but nothing happens. Shuriki just laughs and explains that magic requires understanding.

    Real Life 
  • Cargo cults are 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.
  • A more explicitly word-based version is "cargo cult programming," when novice programmers copy code snippets without understanding what the snippets mean, thus risking a totally different result from the original.
  • It's not uncommon for children to try to do something they've seen on TV. If what they saw was a result of some kind of special effect (or was part of an animated show), then they will inevitably fail. For example, what Dragon Ball Z fan didn't try to use the Kamehameha when they were a kid?
  • The core of the divide between Protestantism and Catholicism largely comes down to differing interpretations of this trope. The Protestant doctrine of sola fide holds that faith in God alone is what saves believers' souls and gets them into Heaven, and that good works in life don't make one a good Christian so much as they are an expression of such. The Catholic Church disagrees and holds that both faith and good works are necessary for salvation. Notably, each side sees the other as being on the wrong end of this trope. Protestantism was born in response to the Catholic Church's abuse of the selling of indulgences, which allowed people to buy their way into Heaven while the Church got rich, and in response declared that faith was the important factor in salvation and that emphasizing good works opened the door to corruption. The Church, in response, believes that sola fide gives believers carte blanche to ignore Christ's teachings out of a belief that they're already saved, and that good works are necessary in order to prove that one is keeping the faith and isn't just hollowly reciting the creed.