Tag Archives: prestidigitator

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)

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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).