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Prestidigitator

Pronounced /ˌprɛstᵻˈdɪdʒᵻteɪtə/Help with pronunciation

Etymologically speaking, a prestidigitator is a person with nimble fingers, an entertainer for whom in the cry of the old-time three-card-trick men, “the quickness of the hand deceives the eye”.

The word was created in 1823 in French as prestidigitateur from preste, an adjective meaning quickly that had been borrowed four centuries before from the Italian presto. To this the unidentified inventor added the Latin digitus, finger. He may not have known of the classical Latin praestigia, a trick or hocus-pocus, nor of praestigiator, a juggler or trickster.

English was well ahead of him, since prestigiator had been in the language since about 1595. Though prestidigitator appears in an uncompleted work by the third Lord Shaftsbury dated 1712, it wasn’t published until 1914, so our word has definitely been borrowed from French.

Mildly exotic and not a little grandiose, it’s hardly suited to the banalities of everyday speech. It demands to be said in exaggerated Gallic fashion, accompanied by an eloquent gesture and the swirl of an imaginary cloak. Or at least by words similarly resplendent:

Famously, [Stephen] Fry is a gothically logorrhoeic consumer of, and dealer in, words. He is the Warren Buffett of adjectives, verbs and nouns, speculating and accumulating. He likes to pile them up into steepling edifices. He loves the way they tintinnabulate and cascade; he likes the playfulness of double meanings. He yearns to toy with them, cavort and gambol with words. He is a human Scrabble bag, a consonant-juggler, a gerund prestidigitator.

AA Gill, in the Sunday Times, 2 Oct. 2011.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 26 Jan. 2013

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 26 January 2013.