Q&A: Slight vs sleight of hand

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we are slightly mad for card games.

Q: Hi AWC, I’ve been learning magic lately.

A: Oh really? What kind of tricks?

Q: I tried to saw a woman in half last week, but I think I’m just going to stick to slight of hand card tricks from now on.

A: What happened to the woman?

Q: The doctors say she should make a full recovery.

A: Oh, um, good.

Q: So would you like to see one of my tricks?

A: Before you start, you really should know that it’s not a “slight of hand” trick.

Q: Oh, really?

A: Really. A “slight” is typically either a noun meaning an insult (e.g. “He was hurt by her insensitive slight about his work”) or an adjective to describe a small amount.

Q: That’s where I was going with it – as in “a slight movement of the hand to create the illusion”. No?

A: Nope. A lot of people get it wrong – simply because they don’t realise the alternative is a word.

Q: What’s the alternative?

A: “Sleight” – a noun meaning “skill, dexterity” according to Macquarie Dictionary. The subsequent phrase “sleight of hand” is described by them as a “skill in feats of jugglery or legerdemain”.

Q: Whoa, wait, what? “Legerdemain”?

A: Yeah it’s an odd word to throw into that definition. It comes from French léger de main meaning “sleight of hand, artful trickery or deception”. Personally, we prefer Google’s “sleight of hand” definition: “manual dexterity, typically in performing conjuring tricks”.

Q: Well, it’s clearly the right word. And I guess it rhymes with “height” – but why do other words sound like “eight”, “weight”, “freight” etc?

A: Because English.

Q: A better answer please.

A: There kind of isn’t one. It’s just the way that the language and spelling have evolved. Height comes from “high” which used to be spelt with “ie” while weight is from “weigh” and was just “i” – so that separates them immediately. Over time, many “gh” words have also seen changes to their sounds. It’s just a part of an organic, often poorly recorded history of pronunciation and word etymology.

Q: Fair enough. So do you want to see a trick now?

A: Sure.

Q: Pick a card. Any card. Don’t show me what it is.

A: Okay.

Q: Put it back in the pack.

A: Uh huh.

Q: Okay, lemme shuffle. Aaaand was your card the eight of spades?

A: Nope.

Q: Oh.

A: It seems you only have a slight amount of sleight. Keep trying…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!


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