The Definition of Magic: Sleight of hand

December 28, 2017

There’s more to magic—and how to describe it—than just calling everything a ‘trick’. That’s why we’re highlighting and exploring important terms, concepts, and ideas every week with The Definition of Magic on GeniiOnline.

A magician holds up a single coin between two fingers. She waves her hand over it, says a few nonsense words, and suddenly, the coin is gone—vanished from this world entirely. Or, she’s probably stuffed into a coat pocket when you weren’t looking. Until magicians figure out how to bend the physical realities of space and time, they’ll simply have to make do with practicing their sleight of hand.

The word ‘sleight’ is derived from the Middle English word ‘sleghth’, which in turn was derived from the Old Norse word ‘slœgth’, which means ‘cunning’ or ‘skill’, and the phrase has been used to describe trickery with the hands for nearly as long. Other words for sleight of hand include ‘legerdemain’, a word derived from the French phrase léger de main (literally translated as ‘light of hand’), or ‘prestidigitation’, a word derived from French (preste = ‘nimble’) and Latin (digitus = ‘finger’).

Sleight of hand can mean a lot of things. It can mean hiding an object, moving objects around, or even giving the illusion that you’ve done these things. It can be done with cards, balls, cups, coins, dice, even vegetables—anything that can be easily manipulated and moved without much notice. Magicians can palm cards from the deck, or perform a ‘pass’, which makes the audience think the object has moved from one hand to another even though it’s stayed in exactly the same place. As the magician performs sleight of hand, they’re often gesticulating and engaging the audience in playful banter—known as ‘patter’—both of which are designed to keep the viewer’s mind as distracted as possible so as not to see the secret movements behind the trick. There are many ways to perform sleight of hand, and all of them require lots and lots of practice.

The important thing to remember is not all magic is sleight of hand and not all sleight of hand is magic. A lot of stage magic for example, with its large, elaborate contraptions, isn’t built for sleight of hand, especially since the performer is dealing with a larger audience than a close-up or street magician. And less scrupulous card sharps wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves magicians, exactly, but they use many of the same skills a magician would—palming, counting cards, etc.—to pull one over a card dealer. (Because of this, many known magicians are actually banned from casinos. Poor Derren Brown.)

For examples of some impressive sleight of hand, check out these videos:

The incomparable Cardini shows off his skills with a variety of props in this vintage video.

Yann Frisch’s cup and ball routine has to be seen to be believed.

Here’s Steven Bridges messing with two people’s heads with a bunch of different kinds of sleight of hand card tricks.