What’s the magic word?


At least, that’s what all the grownups tell you when you’re growing up.

“Open Sesame” worked very well for Ali Baba when he needed to open the door to the hidden cave where he and his 40 thieves would secrete themselves and their contraband.

First appearing in tales in the 16th century (in English about 150 years later), “open sesame” isn’t the oldest password, but I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t the most well-known password around the world. And we have Scheherazade and her story of The Thousand and One Nights to thank for it.


It wasn’t until very recently that average folks had any need or use for passwords. Think about it, even thru the late 1980’s unless you were a college student or worked on a UNIX computer, or were part of the emerging group of eccentrics who liked to connect to dial-up bulletin board systems, you simply did not need passwords.

It was Calvin and Hobbes who brought passwords into our daily lives. The precocious little boy and his stuffed tiger used to have a multi-verse poem as the password to keep little Susie out of their exclusive treehouse club known as G.R.O.S.S. (The password was an ode to the superiority and wonderfulness of Tigers.)

Today, passwords are so entwined with our lives that we’d be hard pressed to imagine life without them.

And that brings us to this Sunday’s The New York Times Magazine.

Ian Urbina of the New York Times takes us on an entertaining journey across human experience in his article The Secret Life of Passwords, which turns out to be about the intimate, not necessarily private and therefore probably not very secure, relationships that we have with our passwords.

Mr. Urbina’s hobby is collecting passwords – at least that is what he tells us. However, as you become engrossed in his article, you realize that it isn’t the passwords that he is collecting, but rather the human interest stories behind the passwords.

We quickly discover that it is the personalities – that’s the right word – that people just like ourselves give to their passwords that interests us. For these personal, meaningful passwords, Mr. Urbina has coined the apt term ‘keepsake passwords’.

He is collecting the stories of individuals, both friends and strangers. And the stories are as engaging and varied as you’d expect personal stories to be.

“Odessa” as a password may be of some interest, but it’s the story that a friend of a friend told him about her trip with her father to the city of his birth after years of exile following his escape from Soviet communism that is stirring.

For readers, the stories are nothing less than fascinating.

For the owner – the creator – the passwords themselves are much more than keys to unlock online accounts. In a very real sense, keepsake passwords are magical. They can make us smile, they can inspire us, and they can even be therapeutic. As Mauricio Estrella elegantly demonstrated, passwords can even become familiar mantras that we repeat over and over to ourselves at times when we need to affect change in our lives.

As humans, we seem to have a need to let others know about the magic power that our passwords hold over us.

Here’s a thought experiment for you: if you were given the chance to tell your password to a complete stranger, would you be more likely to do so:

  1. if you could only give the password, with no story or explanation behind it?
  2. if you were encouraged to give the password and provide your particular story; the reason your password is so special?

I think we can surmise the intriguing answer!

If, like Scheherazade, you would like to share your password story with someone, now is your chance. For those who would like to participate, Mr. Urbina is continuing his password project/hobby. Please visit the link to read his article and to find out more on how you can submit your story… ahem, password.