Dictionary Definition

prestidigitation n : manual dexterity in the execution of tricks [syn: sleight of hand]

User Contributed Dictionary



From prestidigitation from preste, nimble, quick (from Italian presto, from Late Latin praestus, "ready at hand") + digitus, finger, + noun of process suffix -ation, from Latin perfect passive participle suffix -atus + suffix -io.


  • italbrac RP /ˌprɛstɪˌdɪdʒɪˈteɪʃən/
  • italbrac US /ˌprɛstəˌdɪdʒɪˈteɪʃən/
  • Rhymes with: -eɪʃən


  1. A performance of or skill in performing magic or conjuring tricks with the hands; sleight of hand.
    My favorite prestidigitation was when he pulled the live dove out of that tiny scarf.
  2. A show of skill or deceitful cleverness.
    His writing was peppered with verbal tricks and prestidigitation.

Related terms


sleight of hand
deceitful cleverness

Extensive Definition

For the 2006 episode of Prison Break, see Sleight of Hand (Prison Break episode)
Sleight of hand, also known as prestidigitation ("quick fingers") or léger de main (from the French for "lightness of hand"), is the set of techniques used by a magician (or card sharp) to manipulate objects such as cards and coins secretly.
Sleight of hand is not a separate branch of magic, but rather one of the means used by a magician to produce an effect. It can be contrasted with the flourish, where the magician intentionally displays skills, such as the ability to cut cards one handed, which is akin to juggling.
Advanced sleight of hand requires months or years of practice before it can be performed proficiently in front of spectators. Sleight of hand is mostly employed in close-up magic, but it can also be used in stage magic. There are hundreds of different sleights at the performer's disposal, but they can generally be classified into groups: switches, changes, etc.
There are several stories about magicians using sleight of hand in real life, such as the one about American illusionist David Copperfield using sleight-of-hand to fool a mugger into thinking he had no wallet in his pockets.


Sleight, meaning dexterity or deceptiveness, comes from the Old Norse slœgð. Sleight of hand is often mistakenly written as slight of hand, where slight meaning slender or frail comes from the Old Norse slettr. Apart from their pronunciation they have nothing else in common.

Sleight of hand in Close-up magic

Sleight of hand is often used in close-up magic, performed with the audience close to the magician, usually within three or four meters, possibly in physical contact. It often makes use of everyday items as props, such as cards and coins. The guiding principle of sleight-of-hand, articulated by legendary close-up magician Dai Vernon, is "be natural." A well-performed sleight looks like an ordinary, natural and completely innocent gesture, change in hand position or body posture.
It is commonly believed that sleight of hand works because “the hand is quicker than the eye” but this is usually not the case. In addition to manual dexterity, sleight of hand depends on the use of psychology, misdirection, and natural choreography in accomplishing a magical effect. Misdirection is perhaps the most important component of the art of sleight of hand. The magician choreographs his actions so that even the critical and observant spectators are likely to look where the magician wants them to. (More importantly, they do not look where they should not.) Two types of misdirection are time and movement. Time is simple; by allowing a small amount of time to pass after an action, events are skewed in the viewer's mind. Movement is a little more complicated. A phrase often used is "A larger action covers a smaller action." But care must be used to not make the larger action so big that it becomes suspicious.
Another common misconception is that close-up magic must utilize either sleight of hand or some kind of gimmicked apparatus. However, as Henry Hay's Cyclopedia of Magic says,
"Many small tricks, especially card tricks, require neither apparatus nor sleight of hand; much apparatus of the "gimmick" type does not require sleight of hand. Illusions, because they deal with objects too big to hold in the hand, are one class of magic that seldom require sleight of hand--though even here sleight of hand "forcing" may be called into play. There are successful illusionists and apparatus conjurers who can do no sleight of hand at all, but their difficulties and restrictions deserve our sympathy rather than our scorn."

The Seven Principles of Sleight of Hand

The magicians Penn & Teller have been known to, as part of their act, explain sleight of hand while demonstrating it with a performance by Teller, appearing to merely dispose of an old cigarette and light a new cigarette. Teller is, in fact, simply hiding and replacing the same cigarette without ever putting it out. While Teller performs, Penn describes what he is doing, and explains the seven principles of Sleight of Hand.
The Seven Principles are:
  1. Palm - To hold an object in an apparently empty hand.
  2. Ditch - To secretly dispose of an unneeded object.
  3. Steal - To secretly obtain a needed object.
  4. Load - To secretly move an object to where it is needed.
  5. Simulation - To give the impression that something that hasn't happened, has.
  6. Misdirection - To lead attention away from a secret move.
  7. Switch - To secretly exchange one object for another.


Sleight-of-hand techniques can also be used to cheat in gambling games, in street con games such as the three-shell game, to steal, or, in some cases, to claim supernatural powers, as in the performances of some 19th century and early 20th century spirit mediums. For this reason the term "sleight of hand" frequently carries negative associations of dishonesty and deceit, and is also used metaphorically outside the above contexts. The techniques used by gamblers, however, are often very different from those employed by magicians; similarly, the techniques used by some self-proclaimed psychics or spirit mediums are often different from those found in "straight" close-up magic and mentalism. The differences, however, are due to the different working conditions and the different degrees of proximity between spectators and performer; the same basic techniques and approaches are common in all the areas of deception mentioned.


Some of the most influential figures in sleight of hand and close up magic have been David Copperfield, Tony Slydini, Dai Vernon, David Roth, Ed Marlo, Tommy Wonder, Fred Kaps, Michael Ammar, Ricky Jay, David Blaine, and Teller of Penn & Teller.
Performers often encourage their audience to believe they have used sleight of hand when they are actually using another principle or gimmick as the means of misdirecting the audience. For example if one is performing something as simple as the appearing/disappearing coins using a thumb tip, the trick lies in the gimmick but the audience is led to believe the performer has done something very complex to hide the coins, this misdirects them from thinking of a method as simple as the TT.


prestidigitation in German: Taschenspieler
prestidigitation in French: Prestidigitation
prestidigitation in Japanese: 手品
prestidigitation in Polish: Manipulacja (iluzja)
prestidigitation in Russian: Манипуляция (фокусы)

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Prospero, airiness, appearance, conjuration, delusiveness, escamotage, fallaciousness, false appearance, false light, false show, falseness, hanky-panky, hocus-pocus, hokey-pokey, idealization, illusionism, illusionist, illusiveness, immateriality, jiggery-pokery, jugglery, juggling, legerdemain, magic, magic act, magic show, magician, monkey business, mumbo jumbo, seeming, semblance, show, simulacrum, sleight of hand, sorcerer, sorcery, specious appearance, trickery, unactuality, unreality, unsubstantiality
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