Magic Words

-          By Michael!

“I enjoyed it, may I be excused please?”

This tidbit of politeness may look innocuous to you, but it is, in fact, a magical spell.

These eight words, when taken together, invoke a solemn rite of power whereby feral, primal forces bound to a semblance of control could be released from their imposed decorum and allowed, once more, to roam free and cause what mischief they were able.

And of course, by “primal forces” I mean my brother and myself as children. This particularly powerful charm was a requirement for leaving the dinner-table, and I probably repeated it over five thousand times in my youth. I sincerely doubt that I actually thought about any of the individual syllables or phonemes as being connected to actual thoughts or words, much less did I consider the actual meaning of the sentence itself. This phrase held no context for me other than its intended effect:


You see, it was a long time before I considered the dinner table to be more than a mandatory pause in my daily rounds of playing, reading, and general mayhem. I certainly enjoyed eating, but didn’t really see the point in remaining at the table any longer than it took to wolf  down my food – the faster, the better, as dinner often devolved into a competition for remaining portions of my mother’s wonderful cooking. Once the feeding happened, I was done.


And for the life of me I could not fathom why my parents and their friends apparently wanted to remain around the table after eating, frozen in this state of suspended animation rather than doing something worthwhile. Like playing with legos.

So, as soon as humanly possible, I invoked this little bit of hedge wizardry in order to escape the bonds of the table. And – here’s the kicker – I thought everybody had to do this. I did not at any level realize that this was not something that any child, anywhere, had to say in order to be released after mealtime. Thus my parents were showered with compliments from teachers, friends’ parents, and all manner of adults regarding what they perceived as my excellent manners, when in fact…

I was just casting a spell.

Years later, I started to really dig into the process of writing – which has made me more ‘aware,’ I guess is the best term, of words. This has meant learning that kids aren’t alone in using ‘magic words,’ words that are used in context without any real attention being paid to their definitions.

For instance, when was the last time you really thought about the phrase “You’re welcome”?

You’re probably smarter than I am, dear reader, but for a majority of my life that was simply a reflex to the words “Thank you.” I never really considered what I was saying – or whether I was actually being welcoming.

American English is awash with regional ‘magic words’ – my favorite is, of course, the Southern slate-wiper: “Bless his/her heart.” Comedian Henry Cho got it right – you can say anything about anybody as long as you follow it up with this phrase.

Some people love to buck the trend with these little catchphrases that dot our lives. My grandfather’s stock response to the standard “How are you?” greeting is to decisively state “Terrible,” and keep moving wherever it is he’s going.

I love it.

I don’t really have anything against ‘magic words,’ per se. They provide some fluidity to daily living, part of the lubrication of politeness that makes living and working with other people pleasant. (Or at least more bearable.) But every now and then – perhaps more often – I think it would be worth our while to actually consider what we’re saying.

How are you, really?

You are – always – welcome.

And, of course, I thoroughly enjoyed it and appreciate your efforts on my behalf. May I go back to my Legos, please?