Candice Holdsworth
Candice Holdsworth

Semantic sorcery: Using words to bewitch, conjure and transfigure

For 21 years the writer Alan Moore has been a practicing magician. He says in this interview  that on his fortieth birthday, “rather than bore my friends by having anything as mundane as a mid-life crisis, I decided it might be more interesting to terrify them by going completely mad and declaring myself to be a magician”.

Moore believes there is some confusion as to what “magic” actually is. What magic really refers to, he argues, is the manipulation of symbols and language; that which is intangible, rather than the subversion of physical laws by supernatural force;  magic and art are expressions of the same capability to bewitch with words or images.

Art deals with ideas, and when it does so effectively, it  can bring about material change in the world by influencing the way people think. It has the ability to transform consciousness and to shape culture.

This is a magnificent power indeed and, like all magic, can be used for good or ill.

Semantic Sorcery

For Alan Moore, amongst other things, this ill has resulted in the bland homogeneity of modern urban culture: identical high streets, with the same brands, the same iconography everywhere. He has also explored the relationship between language, power and totalitarianism in his novel V for Vendetta.

This is a theme examined most notably by the late George Orwell: the politically powerful manipulating language to conjure a false reality and to confuse common sense. You don’t have to live in Orwell’s dystopian “Airstrip One” and its topsy-turvy verbal universe of “doublethink”, “2+2=5 and “thoughtcrime” to know that language is misused to suit those with political agendas. In my first year of university, during the era of “New Labour” and “Spin” one of our professors told us that the boundaries of political space are not fixed, they are  malleable and configured by rhetoric: what we understand to be “left and right”, the difference between “socialist and conservative”, etc, can all be manipulated by those with the power to disseminate information and to set the policy agenda.

He also told us to question everything he said too.

Of course one does not need to descend into misanthrope and sanity-corroding cynicism to employ critical reasoning in a PR-glossed world.

We just need to be more aware when semantic sorcery is afoot, especially when issues become heavily politicised and a particular narrative becomes dominant. (More on this in a forthcoming eBook).


A good example of this is the case of Liebeck v McDonalds in the United States in 1994.

For most people this would not sound familiar at first, but you may remember it as the story of the woman who sued McDonalds after she burned herself with a cup of their hot coffee whilst driving.

At the time, various ideologues and those with political scores to settle used this case as a way to push for “tort reform” in the US. It became an enormously politicised issue that received massive media coverage worldwide. Much of it erroneous.

The New York Times recently did a report on how it is one of the most misrepresented cases in American legal history. At the time, many mainstream news outlets relayed the story it in a flippant manner, as that of a greedy, irresponsible woman driving with coffee between her legs and using it as an opportunity to make some money off McDonalds.

What many people do not realise is the woman in question, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck, was not driving at all, but had, in fact, been sat in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car which was stationary in the parking lot of a McDonalds. They had just ordered some coffee from the drive-thru and had pulled over, so that she could add some sugar and milk to her drink.

She had placed the coffee in between her legs (the car didn’t have cup holders), pulled the lid of the cup off towards herself and accidentally spilled the liquid on her lap.

She had suffered severe third degree burns in her pelvic region, requiring skin grafts and subsequently received over two years of medical treatment.  The public were also unaware of the careful deliberation of the jury who had heard the case – they too were mischaracterised as a “rogue jury”.

Perhaps, after looking into the trial, you may still side with McDonalds, but at least you would have done so after examining all the facts. The sensationalised version of events, however, appealed to people’s sense of scorn for what they perceive to be laziness, avarice and “undeserved riches.” To many foreigners, the absurdity of America’s entitled “compensation culture”.

It became a joke meme, always the same false story repeated over and over: woman driving with coffee between her legs, spills it, then gets rich by suing McDonalds.

Through the use of dishonest language and misleading stereotypes, a mischievous spell was cast: everyone’s prejudices were flattered, the complexities of the case overlooked and victims were transfigured into villains.


At this point you may think that the concept of magic is superfluous to understanding the relationship between language and power. It is easily explained without it. Indeed you may be right. It is not entirely necessary. Dispense with it if you will.

But it may be helpful to remember that magic’s appeal, as a notion, is that it enables us to transcend corporeal and environmental constraints; to bend reality to the human will.


When it is used in literature and visual art it allows people to read the minds of others; to fly; to be invisible; to travel back in time.  To make things other than what they are.

Similar fictional narratives play out in the real world. Ideological and political wordplay creates the illusion of “truth” where there is none.

This is why it is a useful metaphor for understanding just how powerful language is or any other art form we may use to reimagine our existence.

Language and art are the mediums through which we alter reality.

The closest that any mere mortal can get to a magical superpower.

Image – Candice Holdsworth

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    • J.J.

      The reporting we’ve been seeing by the MSM on the Ukraine crisis have across the (media) board (with rare exceptions) been a very good example of what you are referring to in terms of the use of language.

    • J.J.

      “Language and art are the mediums through which we alter reality.
      The closest that any mere mortal can get to a magical superpower.”

      Excellently said.

      The question is, do we use it for good or evil?
      More importantly, do we have the critical thinking skills to distinguish between the two? In age age of moral relativity, good is bad and bad is good… at least for the brain-dead – which seems to be most of modern society.

    • Bob Andrew

      What a good article. Good current examples of the manipulation of languages are the Oscar Pretorius case and Nkandla. In the OP case the defence appears to be that OP admits that he accidentally fired 4 shots into the toilet door but will not admit that he deliberately killed anybody, including Reeva. Jacob Zuma, knowing full well that he will benefit from the improvements to his house cannot see why he should be asked to pay for them as he did not ask for them. They were asked for by certain cabinet ministers under his control, or so we should think

    • Nicholas

      Thank you. This was an entertaining interpretation of an art form i have practiced for
      more than 60 years: fifty of them consciously.

      I also felt the magic as i was reading you. The radio was playing SAFM’s after 8 forum thing. A man was declaring that there were too many [so-called] untransformed sports teams [read s0-called White] that populated the tv screens.

      I was magically transported back to the late 50’s with different vocal intonation and accents.

      Then: On my right lies a copy of the Business Report [Star: April 10, 2014] that announces in a huge headline: “Far too many white women in top jobs”. That was also a a magical transformation for me: I felt teleported back to a day when our 9th grade [standard 7 then] teacher [then… educator now] beat the whole class because we [the grade 9’s] dissed his promotion of a similar headline with a different colour code.

      And then on my left there’s a headline that screams :”Court says no to racial quotas in job selection.” [Business Day November 29, 2013] And all the while i’m listening to a cabinet minister “Quotaman” stating that the 27,000 schools in the country were producing stars that were being deliberately overlooked; all the while carefully ignoring the certainty that the selectors are [largely] cadre deployed persons.

      And now you have come with this delightful ‘magical’ interpretation of ‘semantic sorcery’… reminding us that words mean no more than they are meant to. Again:…

    • Llewellyn Kriel

      Enchanting ideas magically told in exquisite writing, Bravo! Thanks, and bravo yet again.

    • ian shaw

      I did not know that political science curricula teach linguistic power (besides Macchiavelli).

    • @nateiv_sa

      As a budding (black) author, this was a much needed supplement. It went down like energy drink.

      Caveat: you should’ve warned us to be wary of the kick, though.

    • george orwell

      “Similar fictional narratives play out in the real world.
      “Ideological and political wordplay creates the illusion of “truth” where there is none.”


      Indeed. Even Newtonian physics are denied by fictional narratives – Orwell’s 2+2=5.

      The character in “1984” – bombarded by ficitonal narrative – tries to remind himself science and reality still exists “Stones are hard, water is wet, and objects unsupported fall”.

      “Objects unsupported fall” speaks to gravity and the laws of resistance which inform modern engineering.

      Thus do physicists, scientists and engineers fight the ‘magic’ of geo-political-war-triggering official narrative – amplified by media. They work to wake people up to the fact that quarter mile high structures cannot plunge vertically through the path of greatest resistance in 10 seconds. [Newton’s Laws of Momentum].

      See “A Scientific Theory” at FPJ:

      Science experts have also tried to iterate that a new method for textbook demolition by means of office fires has *not* been invented, which is why other hi-rises subjected to far longer, hotter fires have all stayed standing:

      Academics respond:

    • Paul Whelan

      There’s no doubt there’s some measure of overlap between ‘magic’ and spin or propaganda, the symbols and language of persuasion and belief in politics and art. But such magic today still differs in kind as well as degree, I feel, from the manipulation of physical laws magic was once applied to and literally believed capable of.

      I hasten to say it has by no means vanished, of course. Human nature being what it is, that would really take some magic.

    • Tom Learmont

      I forget where I read about some eager-beaver lawyers from the Obama administration who were in Detroit, full of advice to engineers at General Motors on how to pull Detroit out of the fiscal hole by designing a big fast car that used hardly any petrol.

      When the conversation turned technical, an engineer objected to a young lawyer’s suggestion by saying: “That’ll never work, because it’s in violation of Newton’s Third Law of Motion.”

      “No problem,” said the hotshot lawyer. “If it’s a law — we can get it repealed.”

    • Bobby

      “Language and art are the mediums through which we alter reality.
      The closest that any mere mortal can get to a magical superpower.”

      I’m telling you now that I will use this quote one day. Great read, great thoughts, and I look forward to seeing more from you.

      All the best to you and yours,
      Bobby Calero