Juggling and Magic


Below is an article that first appeared in JUGGLE magazine.


Juggling and Magic


Jugglers and magicians can be thought of as two sides of the same coin. Armed with the Oxford English Dictionary, one can see the common ancestry of these art forms, and perhaps conjecture on how they diverged.


Several hundred years ago, the term juggling was frequently used to refer to what we, today, mean by magic. The word juggle comes from the Latin joculare, which meant to jest. The word joke is also derived from the same root jocus, to jest. Even today a jocular fellow is someone who is disposed to joking or jesting.


Historically, a joculare was an entertainer. We can speculate that, perhaps more specifically, a joculare was an entertainer who used her or his hands as an important part of the performance. This could have meant either juggling, as in tossing multiple objects around, as well as the manipulation of coins, cups and other magic paraphernalia. The language has evolved and become more specific. Today the word juggler refers to someone who uses his or her hands to manipulate objects in an overt fashion for everyone to see and appreciate. The magician's goal is to manipulate objects in a covert fashion so the action is not noticed.


The word manipulate is interesting. an older meaning is "to grip or clasp with the hands". One finds the Latin root word for hand, main buried within. Since hands seem to be such an important aspect of both magic and juggling it might be worthwhile to investigate the implications.


Hands do work. People use their hands to build things. A potter works bare handed to change a lump of clay into a bowl or, for beginners, an ashtray. A carpenter increases the strength of his or her hands with tools to build a house. A general expectation is that a tangible, physical thing is created or modified as the result of the work of the hands. Hands can also work to destroy something that already exists, so perhaps it may be more accurate to think of the hands as altering things.


Both jugglers and magicians, in a sense, shatter this common association of hands and creativity, although in completely different ways. The magician, barely moving her or his hands at all, can still make a dove, coin, or other object appear out of nothing. For the average person, to create anything is a laborious process. The magician's hands seem to be governed by a different reality. That is true magic.


Jugglers surprise people in a different way. A juggler's hands move frantically for all to see, but nothing is created. There were three balls at the start of the routine and there are three balls at the end of the routine. After all of this highly visible activity, nothing is changed. At some level this can be very unnerving to our expectations.


Please keep in mind that this is not a hard and fast rule and it is not limited to just jugglers. Musicians, for example, move their hands and create nothing tangible. However, there is the result of an audible sound, music, which did not exist before. All a juggler does is rearrange the stuff that already exists without creating or altering anything.


Staying with the theme of hands, and since the dictionary is already off the shelf, it may be interesting to delve into the etymology of other words associated with magic.


Legerdemain, translated literally from French, means light of hand. It is easy to see that someone with nimble hands will be able to deceive the eyes of others. A word that is not heard or seen as often is legerdeheel. This is made by substituting heel for main (hand) and refers to someone who engages in Iight-heeled pranks.


In China, to say that someone "has three hands" is to brand that person a thief. The idea is that the victim is lulled into a false sense of security by seeing the expected, and innocent, two hands. However, the thief has a hidden third hand, which dips, unseen, into the victim's pocket.


A prestidigitator is one who is nimble or quick of finger (digit). In music presto is an instruction that the musician play the passage quickly. When a magician utters the word presto he or she also means that something is happening quickly.


Moving away from hands, here are some additional thoughts on some terms that magicians frequently use. Conjure literally means to swear together. HIstorically, there are two distinct pronunciations, con-JURE and CON-jure. The first pronunciation meant "to swear together" as in church (to make a vow together). The second implied to invoke by supernatural power, to call upon a devil or spirit to do one's bidding by the invocation of some sacred name or the use of some spell.


Other English words that share the same root of jure are:


adjure - to put (one) to his oath; 'to impose an oath upon another, prescribing the form in which he shall swear.'


perjure - to swear falsely, to break one's oath.


injure - to do outrage (to a person) in speech; to speak injuriously to or of; to insult, revile, abuse, slander offensively.


Abracadabra comes from the Cabbala. The word was initially used as a charm. One wrote the word in a triangular arrangement and wore this charm around the neck to cure agues and other illnesses. A French magician pronounces the term a-BRA-cad-a-BRA (emphasizing bra instead of the American English emphasis A-bra-ca-DAB-ra). Abra is composed of the first lettters of the Hebrew words signifying the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, viz. Ab, Ben, Ruach, Acadosch. Doubling the word Abra in Abra-cad-Abra would only increase its power.


Interestingly, it is possible for a modern English speaker to break the word up into its five syllables to get the first four letters of the English alphabet, A-Bra-Ca-Da-bra.


Hocus Pocus was a term used in the 17th century to refer to a juggler (Remember, at that time magicians were called jugglers.) There are indications that at least one conjuror went by the name of Hocus-Pocus. There is speculation that the term hocus-pocus is a corruption of the Latin hoc est corpus. This phrase is said by priests of the Church of Rome during Communion to indicate the transubstantiation of bread into the body of Christ.



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