le-jêr-dê-mayn • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, mass (No plural)
Meaning: 1. Magic, sleight of hand. 2. Trickery, deceitful cleverness.
Notes: Today's Good Word was borrowed from French so recently that it still bears the French accent on the final syllable. You will hear it with the English accent on the initial syllable, but accenting the final syllable is still preferred. The fact that it was taken so recently from French also accounts for its lack of derivational relatives; it has no accompanying adjective or verb.
In Play: Today's word is a good substitute for magic when the situation calls for a longer, less familiar word: "Mr. Rhee made a living for years performing legerdemain for credulous audiences." It is much more frequently used, however, as a facetious expression for slick con artistry: "The creative legerdemain of Cook, Books, and Hyde seems to have lured IRS scrutiny of their accounting methods."
Word History: Today's Good Word comes from the Old French phrase léger de main "sleight of hand", literally "light of hand". Léger comes from the same Proto-Indo-European root (legwh-) that brought us English light and Russian legkij "light", both adjectives. With a Fickle N, this root emerged in lung, an organ still called a light in slaughtered animals, because they float on water during the processing of innards. The same root produced Latin levis "light", found in alleviate, levity, and levitate. In Gaelic it emerged as lu "small", as in luchorpán "little body" from lu + Latin(!) corpus + an Irish suffix. Today this compound is Irish luchrupán, spelled leprechaun in English—a bit of lexical legerdemain itself by the little people who specialize in it. (Today we thank Mark Bailey for more magic in coming up with yet another intriguing word for our series.)
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