Word: prestidigitation

Pronunciation: pre-stə-di-jə-TAY-shən

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: magic tricks performed as entertainment

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


I know what you’re probably thinking: I gave you quite the tongue-twister for today’s Word of the Week. Though it does seem more like a spelling bee challenge than an actual practical term, I admit that I love this word just for how ridiculously purple it sounds. I happen to love stage magic (who doesn’t, right?), and yet I still had to look this word up when I first read it, because for all the times I’ve heard about “magic tricks” and “sleight of hand”, I have yet to hear anyone call this field of entertainment “prestidigitation”!

“Prestidigitation” is a formal term for magic as a form of entertainment, especially performed with the hands. The word arose in the mid 19th century and is originally a French noun, also meaning “conjuring tricks” or “sleight of hand”. This noun stems from the French adjective preste “nimble” coupled with the Latin noun digitus “finger”.

Although it certainly sounds interesting, I assume the word “prestidigitation” would most commonly be used today in an ironic sense (or as an advanced word in the aforementioned spelling bees). In fact, the last time I even came across this word was a few years ago in the title of an episode of The Big Bang Theory, notably the same episode from which I learned the word “axiomatic“. Still, nothing should stop you from using it seriously if it fits the context of your writing. If you want to take it a step further, you can also use the noun “prestidigitator” in place of “magician”, and if you need a tip to help you remember these words’ connection with magic, just associate them with the exclamation “Presto!” If you ever write characters who are magicians, you can certainly have fun detailing the “prestidigitation” in your stories!

Bonus: for those of you who’d prefer a visual example of “prestidigitation”, please enjoy this adorable and hilarious short film by Pixar!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

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