Word: prestige

Pronunciation: pre-STEEJ

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: widespread respect and admiration felt for someone or something on the basis of a perception of their achievements or quality

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”.

– Cutter, The Prestige (2006)

Since I covered magic in last week’s vocabulary post, why not continue on that theme with a related word this week? The above excerpt may seem like an odd choice of example for the given definition of today’s Word of the Week, but I promise there is a connection. The Prestige, a 2006 mystery/thriller film about a dangerous rivalry between two magicians, takes its title from the original usage of the word, which was not so much about reputation as it was about illusion. So perhaps it does make sense that this archaic meaning morphed into the definition we know today; it is, after all, only our perceptions (and in some cases, delusions) of quality that give others their “prestige”!

“Prestige” is admiration and respect felt for something or someone based on a perception of their quality or achievements. The word arose in the mid 17th century in the sense “illusion” or “conjuring trick” and is originally a French noun, also meaning “illusion” or “enchantment”. This noun may stem from the Latin noun praestigium (“a delusion”, “an illusion”) or the verb praestringere (“to blind(fold)”, “to dazzle”).

As hinted above, the word “prestige” has undergone an interesting transformation. What started out as a word for magic tricks and illusions eventually underwent a transference of meaning through the sense “dazzling influence” or “glamour” to become the term for respect and admiration that we know today. The original definition has since become obsolete (read: appropriate for historical writing), while the modern definition seems to appear most often in the adjective form “prestigious”. It’s worth noting that despite their similarities in meaning and phonetics, “prestige” actually has a different root than “prestidigitation”, though at least you could use the latter to remember the old definition for the former. If your characters are revered for their (supposed) merits or are simply masters of illusion, there may be room for plenty of “prestige” in your stories!

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

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