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“Open sesame” is a passphrase opening the treasure cave in the tale of Ali Baba and the Fourty Thieves. In French at least, it is a widely used phrase to say jokingly when using keys or any other mean to open a locked door (especially if your friends have been waiting for you, the bearer of the keys!).

I don't think I have ever heard it used in English, though, and I was wondering:

  • How widely understood is it? Is it a common cultural reference, or something only literary or classicaly-educated people would understand?
  • Is it commonly used in media or kids’ books (other than variations on The One Thousand and One Nights)?
  • How else would you put it? Are there other idioms that pertain to opening of doors and gates?
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I use when the door wouldn't open, in hopes that after saying it, the door might agree to opening – Thursagen Aug 29 '11 at 8:34
I originally voted because I thought this wouldn't help other people. Now, though, I see that this question could have a lot of depth depending on how many people understand this phrase. (If there were way to take the vote back, I would) – simchona Aug 29 '11 at 9:26
@prash: well, Alohamora is a recent common one that is limited to doors :) – F'x Aug 29 '11 at 9:28
@F'x: I guess must read Harry Potter now to be considered culturally up-to-date :-| – prash Aug 29 '11 at 9:34
There is "Mellon" too. But not many know this one. – prash Aug 29 '11 at 10:51
up vote 10 down vote accepted

It certainly used to be a very common cliche in exactly those same situations in English (at least, in middle America where I lived). Particularly for things operated with openers like garage doors. I'm pretty sure I even heard it used on The Electric Company, which was broadcast all over the USA back in the 70's (when most folks only had 4 TV channels. so every kid in the USA watched it).

I don't recall hearing it recently though, so that may no longer be the case. I can vouch that any USA person in their 40's or older will be familiar with the phrase, though.

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I'm pretty sure I encountered it in Saturday-morning cartoons too, again back in the "there were only four channels" days. – Monica Cellio Aug 29 '11 at 16:31
You mentioned The Electric Company, but you did not mention Sesame Street, which was was named based on the popularity of the expression? > The name "Sesame" was meant to conjure up a sense of excitement and adventure, as in the Arabian Nights command, "Open Sesame!" Read more: wiki.answers.com/Q/… – JeffSahol Aug 29 '11 at 17:00
@JeffSahol - Damn good point. Also, unlike TEC, Sesame Street is still in production. – T.E.D. Aug 29 '11 at 19:31
@Monica Cellio - Did "Hong Kong Phooey" also use it to open his lair door perhaps? Siguemond and the Seamonster for the cave entrance? :-) – T.E.D. Aug 29 '11 at 19:58
Popeye used to say "Open, sez me!" (IOW, it's me who is saying to open.) – Kate Gregory Aug 29 '11 at 21:56

I googled "open sesame" and found hits for

Basically, the same phrase is being used all over the place, sometimes in reference to sesame oil (for obvious reasons) and sometimes in reference to opening things that are closed. This suggests to me that the phrase "Open sesame" is well-known enough that, even if not all readers know the story of Alibaba, they at least know the famous pass-phrase.

As far as your other questions, I think it's a common theme in fiction, especially fantasy, to have doors which can't be opened without a passphrase. As some comments have pointed out, The Lord of the Rings had the famous scene where the party was stuck outside the doors of Moria while Gandalf tried to remember the secret word that would open the doors. Many computer-hacking stories also feature password theft or cracking. The password is almost never "Open sesame" in the other stories, though.

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Everybody likes Google Ngrams, so I'm going to try to use it. Searching up "Open Sesame", I got:

enter image description here

As you can see, its height of popularity was in 1920, but it seems to have waned quite a bit since.

According to Wikipedia, the first complete Arabian Nights with 1001 stories, was printed in Arabic in 1818 by the British East India Company, but the first English version was not until:

1838 – Torrens version in English.

I have a suspicion that the Ngrams show the usage of "Open Sesame" before the first English version, because the Arabic scholars knew how to use it, and probably did use it, but until the lay person knew about "open sesame", it wasn't that popular.

It's height of popular could be explained by this:

Robert Irwin summarises their findings: "In the 1880s and 1890s a lot of work was done on the Nights by [the scholar] Zotenberg and others, in the course of which a consensus view of the history of the text emerged

Thus, after there was a lot of work done on these manuscripts, the books became popular possibly, and thus, the usage became more frequent.

Nowadays, people don't read the Arabian Nights that much anymore. I have a feeling that most people do know about the phrase, as Ali Baba is quite a popular tale.

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Perhaps the peak of popularity is due to a certain movie... IMDb has these: Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1902) ; Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1907) ; The Treasure Cave (1911) ; Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1918) ; Ali-Baba und die 40 Räuber (1922) ; Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1932) ; and so on – GEdgar Aug 29 '11 at 21:10
That, is an excellent line to search under! Great idea. Yes, that is a very very real possibility. After all, people are really influenced by movies – Thursagen Aug 29 '11 at 21:12
Plus, in many cases, far more people view a Hollywood movie than read an ancient translated book. – GEdgar Aug 30 '11 at 0:15

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