In last week’s episode of The Habit Weekly, we discussed canards, quacks, charlatans, hoaxes, and the question of how one might half-sell a duck. A reader named David Ferrell suggested that if you half-buy a duck, you should try to buy the bottom half, so you could get some eggs out of the deal. This made me think of the old story of the boy whose mother insisted that he share the sled evenly with his little brother; so he took the sled for the downhill part and let his little brother take it for the uphill part.
One hoax-related word I didn’t mention last week was hocus pocus, the word from which hoax apparently derives. It has long been suggested that hocus pocus is a corruption or parody of the words of institution from the Latin Mass: hoc est corpus meum, “this is my body.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) casts doubt on this etymology, though it doesn’t really offer an alternative except to say that it was a sham-Latin formula uttered by conjurers and jugglers.
That word juggler has a pretty interesting history. In its earliest English uses, it meant “clown” or “jester.” In the OED, Definition 1 of juggler is “one who entertains or amuses people by stories, songs, buffoonery, tricks, etc.” The word ultimately goes back to the Latin ioculari, “to joke or jest.” Think of the word jocular, and you can see the connection between juggler and joker. The word buffoon, by the way, follows a similar path from the Italian buffo/buffa, “comical,” to buffoon, “stage comic.”
But from very early on, the idea of jugglery was associated with magic and even witchcraft. Here’s the OED’s Definition 2 of juggler: “One who works marvels by the aid of magic or witchcraft, a magician, wizard, sorcerer (obsolete); one who plays tricks by sleight of hand; a performer of legerdemain; a conjurer.”
These days we use the words juggle and juggler in a much more neutral sense, referring to manual dexterity and/or the ability to manage multiple things at once—to keep several balls in the air, so to speak. But earlier than a century or two ago, to juggle was either to perform the dark arts or, more likely, to pretend to practice the dark arts or otherwise to deceive by way of sleight of hand. I did a quick search of juggling-related words in the complete works of Shakespeare, and they were all pejorative in their use. Here are three examples:
Is’t possible the spells of France should juggle
Men into such strange mysteries?
Henry the Eighth, I.iii
They say this town is full of cozenage,
As nimble jugglers that deceive the eye,
Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind,
Soul-killing witches that deform the body,
Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks,
And many such-like liberties of sin.
The Comedy of Errors, I.ii
And be these juggling fiends no more believ’d,
That palter with us in a double sense;
That keep the word of promise to our ear,
And break it to our hope!
The word conjurer has already come up a couple of times. I was a little surprised at the dark origins of this word, which these days usually refers to a stage magician, a practitioner of sleight of hand. Conjurer goes back to the Latin con (with, together) + iure (oath, law). That root iure gives us various legal words like jury, jurist, perjury, and jurisdiction. Conjuration, a word we don’t use anymore, meant conspiracy: the idea is that conspirators swear an oath to one another, enter into a league. From conjuration came conjurer, one who conspired with, was in league with dark spirits. It wasn’t too many centuries before conjuring came to mean simply performing tricks that gave the impression that one might have magical powers.
The idea of prestidigitation, on the other hand, was never about summoning dark powers. A prestidigitator is just one with quick fingers: presto (Italian for “quick,” ultimately from the Latin praestus, “ready”) + digitus (Latin for “finger”).
One way or another, the words prestige and prestigious are related to prestidigitation. Until the nineteenth century, a prestigious person was a tricky person, a juggler. I was hoping prestigious would turn out to be a corrupted version of prestidigitation, but according to etymonline.com it’s not that direct, and may have more to do with the blindfold used by a stage entertainer(?). Here’s part of that entry:
from Latin praestigious “full of tricks,” from praestigiae “juggler’s tricks,” probably altered by dissimilation from praestrigiae, from praestringere “to blind, blindfold, dazzle,” from prae “before” (see pre-) + stringere “to tie or bind”
By the nineteenth century, prestige was being used to refer to “an illusion as to one’s personal merit or importance, a flattering illusion” (that’s etymonline.com again). Eventually, through the linguistic process known as amelioration, we have come to use the word prestige in a considerably more positive light. Prestige often turns out to be illusory, of course, but it is not illusory by definition.