Tag Archives: prestidigitation

The Prestidigitator’s Sleight of Hand


I was reading “The Chinese Orange Mystery” by Ellery Queen last week, as it’s on my 501 book list, when I came across this week’s word – prestidigitator.

“Inspector Queen began to pull things out of the bag, like a prestidigitator over a silk hat.”

I hadn’t met it before, but understood from context that it referred to a magician of some sort. Nonetheless it sent me to a dictionary, if only to work out how to say it aloud. Yes, as I suspected a prestidigitator is skilled at sleight of hand. They can make a coin appear out of seemingly thin air. Whether there’s such a thing as thick air (perhaps fog?) could be a wordy ramble for another day.

Regular readers will know that it’s pretty rare for a word to originate with a single person. The exception is an eponym which is named for one person, but usually those are added to language thanks to many people using the person’s name as a noun. Prestidigitator is one of these rare words – it was coined by an individual and it is still in use, albeit rarely, today.

Prestidigitator was coined in French in 1830 (or possibly as early as 1819) as prestidigitateur by Jules de Rovère. He joined up the Latin praestigiator (juggler and also related to prestigious which originally in English was all about playing tricks and deception rather than fame), added in a dash of the Italian/conjuror’s presto (quick or ready) and ended with Latin digitus (finger, see also digit and digital). The word made its way into English by 1843.

Words the French Gave Us

Jules was himself a prestidigitator of some renown who was famous in Paris, but you won’t find much about him online unless you’re reading in French and there’s even some debate over whether he was French or Italian. The confusion may have been aided by him also performing under the name Auguste the Magnetiser (a reference to hypnotism rather than magnets) and a brief stay in prison.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. this post contains affiliate links which make a small payment to the blog if you choose to purchase through them. #CommissionsEarned. Alternatively, you can use my digital tip jar.

p.p.s. “Words The Sea Gave Us” has been on release for a whole month now and I must say thank you to all those who have been so supportive of the book. This week the book appeared in The Marine Times (Ireland’s newspaper for coastal communities and all those afloat).

Nimble Fingers and Prestidigitation


Before I get stuck into this week’s word (prestidigitation, in case you can’t wait) I want to say a quick thank you to those of you who have subscribed to Wordfoolery. I spend very little effort on promoting this blog and it’s a true delight to find other word-nerds signing up to get the weekly post. Oh and don’t forget, if you have a favourite word I haven’t covered yet or come across an intriguing term – drop a comment and I’ll try to include it.

I’m reading “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman at the moment. I thought I’d read all his novels and had mislaid my copy of this one but when the replacement arrived, joy of joys, one I’d somehow missed. Actually, checking the first published date I suspect this mishap is easily explained by the birth of my first child and consequent lack of reading time.

He has an excellent vocabulary and when I came across his lead character, Shadow, playing coin tricks for a little boy and calling them prestidigitation (pronunciation presti-digit-tation, audio here), I had to investigate as I’d never seen the word before.

Presti comes from presto (Italian) and preste (French) for quick or nimble. I can’t help thinking that presto pesto must be on a menu somewhere.

Digit is, of course, a term for finger. It comes from digitus (Latin).

Together we have nimble fingers and prestidigitation which appeared in English in the mid-19th century, although I’m sure such tricks are substantially older than that.

The related terms are sleight of hand and legerdemain. Apparently sleight in this context means dexterity. Not to be confused with slighting someone by giving them the old cold shoulder.

Legerdemain is simpler to explain than to execute. Leger – light, de – of, main – hand = light of hand.

Now if you require misdirectional chatter during your display of prestidigitation, you can entertain your audience with patter on the origin of the word.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,