Open, Sesame! Literature & Passwords

So we’re going to talk about classic world literature and Open, Sesame. But first, the public service part of the blog!

So you’ve heard by now of the sweeping security breach involving Equifax, who among other things were caught using the user name “admin” and the password “admin.” Seriously.

But somehow an appalling number of people still use “password” as their own security measure — or a pathetic variation such as “password1” — or their pet’s name, etc. Folks, it’s worth reading up on password security, or just use a solid password manager such as LastPass. (That’s a referral link which will give you a free month of premium service, but the free version is darned good itself.) But if you really can’t be bothered to do the reading, here’s the crash course of what you need to know:

  1. Do not reuse passwords between websites. That’s like having one key to unlock your house, your car, your bank, everything, with four hundred copies lying around. Apparently over 80% of users still admit to this.
  2. Don’t use password hints. And certainly don’t use password hints that actually help to identify your password.
  3. Don’t reuse passwords on different sites or accounts.
  4. Don’t use personal information (birth year, maiden name, family names, etc) as your password or in the password hint, seriously people.
  5. How are people still using their pets’ and kids’ names as their passwords what even.

Okay, jump ahead and Open, Sesame to the interesting part about stories and stuff.

The thieves ride to their cave of treasures where they will call, Open, Sesame.

The thieves ride to their cave of treasures. (Artist: Albert Robidat)

I saw someone online asking about why Disney’s Aladdin would say “Open, sesame” at the Cave of Wonders. (Note: I don’t recall this in the 1992 Disney film, but Google tells me it happened in Once Upon A Time. Feel free to correct me in the comments.)

I knew it was a reference to the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (I’ve always wanted to do a story set in the purely-fantastic-and-historically-balderdash world of the Arabian Nights), but that doesn’t explain why the thieves themselves would use “sesame” as a password. I’d actually long wondered that myself, because why a seed?

(An interlude here, for those who aren’t familiar with The Thousand And One Nights: the relevant bit of the story for this discussion is that Ali Baba learns the password to magically open the cave of treasure belonging to a band of thieves, which is the spoken phrase “open, sesame.” He shares this with his brother Kassim, who gets trapped in the cave when he can’t remember the phrase and runs through an amusing but ultimately fatal list of alternate grains and seeds. “Open, barley” just doesn’t work. Kassim is discovered by the thieves and is butchered horribly. Read the rest here.)

A bit of research, and I found that “sesame” is a word which is pronounced differently in old Semitic languages and dialects. Just as the pronunciation of shibboleth could identify a person’s ethnicity and origin (and so became a term for a passphrase), so could samsam/simsim/sumsum (I found all these as transliterations). Period speakers could use it for identification.

Then I found that the Hebrew word סִיסמָה is pronounced siysmah, eerily similar to the English sesame. And that word סִיסמָה means “password.”

Guys. The band of forty thieves were protecting their treasure cave with the password, “password.”

Seriously, this is like discovering new sex jokes by reading Shakespeare in the original pronunciation. I never would have guessed.

But remember how the tale of Ali Baba goes. The moral of the story is, if you want to keep your data and treasure safe, use a more secure password.

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  1. It’s my belief that the use of sesame is the Ali Baba story is simply this: Open, I say!” As in, “open, sez a me!” Which is not nearly as scholarly as yours but has similar ramifications…LOL.

    • There are lots of “Open, says me!” parodies in American cartoons and films! but of course they work only in English. The oldest copy of the the Ali Baba story we have is in French. So only a parody — and yet one which has somehow convinced a surprising number of people online that it’s the original phrase and that “sesame” is a mishearing. O.o

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