Words Do Not Make the Magic

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Jade: I know your magic words. (Chants, but fails)
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 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 Greyskull 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. Aversion 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.

Compare/Contrast By the Power of Greyskull, where the words do heavily matter but usually only certain characters can use the words successfully.

Examples of Words Do Not Make the Magic include:

Anime and Manga

  • In 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.
  • In Fairy Tail, Luxus 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 Luxus that his heart can't lie to his magic and the guild members are still his True Companions.
  • Bleach. Kido spells are spoken, but they only have effect if used by spiritual beings such as Soul Reapers.




Jerry Dandridge: You have to have faith for that to work, Mr. Vincent!

  • 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 before he could finally get one to work after being shown numerous times that magic existed.
  • In Hellbound Hellraiser II, the psychotic 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 get's 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.


  • Discworld series
    • 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, but the words are still an important part of the spell. The incantation is as much a part of the spell as pointing and drawing up power, so wizards will use 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.
  • 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 their effect will be lesser than desired.
    • 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.[2]
    • 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. A subversion since it was the sounds rather than the knowledge of the actual words that were required opened the door.
      • But then again, Ron is still a wizard, even if he wasn't born with that power. That might not work for a muggle.
  • In The Bible, is an account of non-believers who attempts to cast out a demon by repeating the words Paul used to successfully excorcise one. The demon, being a bit of a Deadpan Snarker, replies "Jesus I know about, and I know about Paul, but who are you?"
  • The Dark is Rising, the 2nd 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.
  • John Bellairs' The Face in the Frost has a scene in which a wizard casts a spell by reciting silly verse which has nothing to do with the effect he wants to produce (turning a vegetable into a coach a la Cinderella) -- it's implied but never spelled out that it's the rhythm rather than anything in the words' meaning that gathers the magical power, and the wizard's unspoken will that focuses it.

Live Action TV

  • 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 occurs in the episode Animal Pragmatism: 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.
  • Xena: In a variation, 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.
  • 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.

Tabletop RPG

  • 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.
  • Verbal spell components spoken by Muggles have no effect in Mage: The Ascension and Shadowrun.

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.
  • 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.

Web Original


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.

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.

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.
  1. It is a nonsense formula, do not bother searching for it.
  2. It is possible for a skilled wizard/witch to cast a random magical effect similar to "accidental magic" without using their wands, too, since wands are a tool of control, and not one of power.