Magicians' words

Wed Apr 28 20:54:30 UTC 2004

        I took a look at the pre-1945 cases that use "presto."  None of them used "presto chango" (or its variations), but there were a number that used plain "presto" or "presto change" metaphorically.  Then there was this 1855 variation from the Supreme Court of Wisconsin, which was also the earliest case that I found:

        <<The record before this court admits the election of Coles Bashford, but sets up that the state canvassers canvassed the defendant into office--and here I would invoke a new use of the word "canvass," in the English language hereafter. When feats of legerdemain are to be performed, let it not be said "presto, pass, change," but "canvass, pass, change!" to express ready, accomplished sleight-of-hand.>>  Attorney General ex rel. Bashford v. Barstow, 4 Wis. 567 (1855).

        "Presto chango" did not show up until 1951, almost a century later.  "Alakazam" is rare and recent, and "jingo" does not show up in the magic sense at all.  "Abracadabra" and "hocus pocus," of course, are frequent and old.  While these cases are not direct evidence of magicians' usage, they do indicate the extent to which magicians' words had passed over into formal writing.

John Baker

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