Presto, Chango!

The magic of a deceptive word

Many legislators are resorting to interesting budget tricks to try to pay for everything they want without necessarily having the funds in hand.

In many news reports and numerous letters to the editor, this trickery is called “slight of hand.” In others, it’s called “sleight of hand.” While the latter usage is correct, the intended meaning is the same for both: through deft manipulation, a deception is being performed. Only the spelling is different.

Both words rhyme with “light,” though occasionally you hear “sleight” pronounced to rhyme with “late.” Because they sound the same, and because “slight” is a much more common word than “sleight,” it’s easy to see how the spelling mistake is made. It’s common enough that Garner’s Modern American English Usage puts it at Stage 2 of the Language-Change Index: “The form spreads to a significant fraction of the language community but remains unacceptable in standard usage.”

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the expression “sleight of hand” to the 1400’s, with spellings as “sleight,” “slight,” and “sleght.” Remember that the first “serious” dictionary codifying the spelling of English words came from Samuel Johnson in 1755—but even Johnson used “slight of hand” in 1760. The OED shows numerous “slights” well into the nineteenth century.

But if you look at how each word is used on its own, it should be clear why this particular spelling difference should be maintained.

“Sleight” means “artifice, craft, deception, hoax” or “skill, dexterity, expertise,” in Webster’s New World College Dictionary. It almost never appears nowadays without “of hand.” And while a magician might use “sleight-of-hand” to entertain, in news reports the phrase usually implies that there’s more than benign trickery at hand.

“Slight,” on the other hand, has a variety of definitions. As an adjective it means “light in form or build; not stout or heavy; slender,” or “frail; fragile,” as in “she has very slight hands.” It also means “having little weight, strength, substance, or significance,” and “small in amount or extent; not great or intense,” as in “it was a slight mistake.”

But as a noun or verb, it takes on a more sinister tone: “a slighting or being slighted by pointedly indifferent, disrespectful, or supercilious treatment,” as in “not passing the tax bill is an unforgivable slight by the legislature”; and “to do carelessly or poorly; neglect,” “to treat with disrespect or indifference; be discourteous toward,” and “to treat as unimportant,” as in “the legislature slighted the taxpayers’ group.”

With such nearly opposite meanings for a single word, the use of “slight of hand” to mean “sleight of hand” could be misunderstood by people who think the phrase means “a light touch” or “disrespect” instead of “a trick.” Yes, it’s not far from “deceptive” to “discourteous,” but in most cases the nuance is important.

As with so many homophones, if you work in broadcast, you can “slight” this. “Slightly.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.