Sleight of Hand

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks,

What exactly is meant by “sleight of hand” and how do you pronounce “sleight”?

First the pronunciation: sleight rhymes with light and might.

The noun sleight has been in the language since the 13th century. In early use, it meant “cunning employed so as to deceive” and was often paired with words like strength and might to contrast force with subtlety. For example, in folk tales, weak animals that lack physical strength often prevail over their stronger enemies by means of sleight. Likewise, politicians might seek to obtain their aims “by sleight” rather than “by force.”

Later, the skills of jugglers were referred to as sleight:

The juggler’s sleight, That with facility of motion cheats The eye.—1850

The phrase “sleight of hand” is a translation of a French expression: léger de main, “light of hand.” The French expression refers to the performance of tricks in which nimble action with the fingers deceives the eye of the beholder. The French expression exists in English spelled as one word: legerdemain.

“Sleight of hand” is used literally to describe a magician’s techniques:

Because of his familiarity with the illusions of stage magic and sleight of hand, Houdini was particularly adept at spotting the trickery that the so-called psychics and spirit mediums then hawking their services as conduits to the afterlife to the credulous grieving public commonly used.

More often, the expression is used figuratively to describe rhetorical techniques used to mislead and shape public opinion:

Politicians love pitting us against the rich. It’s a slick political sleight-of-hand where politicians and their allies amongst the intellectuals, talking heads and the news media get us caught up in the politics of envy as part of their agenda for greater control over our lives.

[Educational problems] can be papered over by focusing still more blame on teachers and teacher educators rather than the underlying causes. Duncan’s rhetoric provides a perfect example of this political sleight of hand.

The fact that these prisons are modern is not because they are privatised, but because government policy has allowed only the private sector to build new prisons. To conclude that private prisons in the UK boast modern conditions simply because they are privatised is to fall victim to a political sleight of hand.

Synonyms for the literal meaning of “sleight of hand”:

adroitness
deftness
dexterity
legerdemain
skill

Synonyms for the figurative meaning of “sleight of hand”:
deception
deceit
dissimulation
chicanery
trickery

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4 Responses to “Sleight of Hand”

  • Julie Link

    If “sleight” is defined as “cunning employed to deceive,” why are “deceit,” “dissimulation,” et.al. figurative, rather than literal, meanings?

  • Lascelles Clarke

    “…in folk tales, weak animals that lack physical strength…” – dailywritingtips.com is among the last places I would expect to be using such redundancy. I have been a dailywritingtips.com subscriber and find the articles helpful, but now I have questions regarding their reliability.

  • Maeve

    Julie,
    I chose that phrasing because the word “sleight” means “cunning,” but the expression “sleight of hand” refers to physical dexterity.

  • Kevin Medeiros

    Re: Julie

    The use of “sleight of hand” to address the figurative meanings is typically used as an active illustration of the character’s motives/persona. The figurative synonyms will often refer more to an ideal or a mindset than a physical action. The reason they coincide so well has to do with the social aspect of an illusionist’s act. While the sleight of hand is there to trick the eye, it is up to the illusionist to -convince- the other person/people to believe the trick. That convincing is the figurative shadow to the physical action.

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