On Magic Words; or, A Trick by Any Other Name

by Brad Henderson

The word “magician” can mean many things, and one can be some, all, or any combination of those things. Some magicians make their living performing, some do it just for fun. Some magicians collect the equipment, ephemera, and even the secrets of bygone magicians. While they may not perform, they provide a valuable service by keeping our history alive. Some magicians are interested in the theory of magic—as an art, a craft, a science. They provoke others interested in magic to re-view and reevaluate their beliefs, values, and choices. Some magicians craft and manufacture the props and equipment used by the performers and coveted by the collectors. Some magicians write for other magicians, both technically and creatively. There are magician publishers, and magician consultants, and magician photographers, and the list goes on.

As magician-philosopher Eugene Burger put it, “Magic is a house with many rooms.” As a magician, I have spent a lot of time in many of these spaces. I make my living performing and producing events throughout the world; I have been collecting magic-related items since I was a teenager; I spend almost every waking moment thinking about magic, what it means, and how we can better create emotional responses for our audience; and I love talking to real people (i.e., non-magicians) about magic and what it means to them (and me!). To that end I’d like to kick off my Conjuring Arts Research Center tenure with a question that allows me to introduce you to several of my favorite rooms.

Q: What word do magicians hate the most?

I love asking this question of my audiences. I find their answers illuminating. Just what word do they think would bother us most, and what does it say about what they think our values are? One of the most common guesses I hear is “Fake”. Second is usually “Lie”. “Caught” is also popular. While I wouldn’t enjoy hearing any of these words during my show, I’m thinking of a word that is practically synonymous with magic, but many magicians will go out of their way to avoid ever uttering it.

That word is “Trick”.

Magicians hate the word trick. As I said, some will even stoop to using magic jargon (substituting the often nonsensical and misapplied word “effect”) in place of the dreaded “trick”. Although I now have no problem with the word trick, I used to, but now I realize that the idea of a magic trick is a unique, fundamental construct of our art. It is just as jargony as “effect”, except that it is jargon actually understood by the general population. While I personally prefer using the word “piece” to describe each of the items I present during performance, I take no offense when someone asks me to do a trick. Having said that, I do understand why some magicians would rather avoid it.

The word trick has other meanings in addition to being a term used to describe a performance piece presented by a magician. Most immediately, trick suggests the idea of fakery. While no one wishes to be labeled a fake, I don’t believe this is the thickest root of the objection. Today, few magicians present that which they perform as genuine. Instead, most acknowledge openly that they are using sleight of hand, mechanical devices, scientific methods, and principles of illusion and psychology.

Perhaps more damning than implying fakery, trick suggests that the experience will be something more like a prank or practical joke. As such, it immediately defines the relationship as inherently antagonistic. This creates an unnecessary and unwanted challenge for the magician. An audience can enjoy illusions and sleight of hand for their own sake, unburdened by claims of the genuine; but when our language pits the performer and audience as combatants from the outset, it becomes nearly impossible to convey a satisfactory magical experience. Magic is not a contest, and the word trick implies that the magician is out to “put one over” on their audience and that the audience’s job is to resist “falling for it”. This is an unfortunate attitude, and equally unfortunately, one reinforced by magicians in dozens of ways other than the mere use of the word trick.

My personal objection to the word trick is that it sounds unartful. Most magicians take that which they do very seriously. They spend hours and hours practicing the techniques of the craft, and sometimes years and years trying to create a single amazing experience for their audiences. To label what they do with such a coarse term seems both unfitting and obviously invites resistance. This, I think, points us toward the real source of the objection: the magician’s ego.

Finally, and in addition to all of the above, when we call something a magic trick, it suggests that the objects—the props—are responsible for the magical phenomena, rather than the skill of the magician. Naturally, the magician doesn’t want their audience to believe that all one need do is purchase the magic trick in order to “be a magician”. In fact, in order to avoid this appearance altogether, many magicians avoid using props that appear to be specially constructed. The reality is that it takes great skill to perform magic of any kind, even if a prop manages to accomplish most of the secret tasks for the magician. In fact, performing with props can actually require greater skill than presenting a trick based on pure sleight of hand. The successful performer must convince the audience that the prop had nothing to do with the phenomenon when in fact it may be doing all the work. This is as difficult a task as cutting a pack of cards so quickly the audience cannot suspect let alone detect the movement. It is a different skill set, mind you, but one equally challenging as evidenced by the fact few “prop” magicians manage to succeed in their attempts to “overshadow the box”.

So, there are many reasons why a magician would prefer to avoid using the word trick, it implies fakery, it makes it seem like the audience will be the victim of a joke or prank, it creates an antagonistic relationship, it suggests the performance may be trivial or unartful, and it makes it seem like it is the prop which should be praised, not the performer. But there are tricks which one can buy at a magic store, and while many magicians pooh-pooh tricks of this nature, the fact remains some of these magic tricks are pretty darned amazing. Their inventors and builders manage to combine engineering, design, psychology, craftsmanship, creativity, and even sleight of hand into these amazing products that can amaze and befuddle as deeply as any other magic experience, by any name you wish to call it. I love “magic tricks”. They are exciting to collect and fun to perform. They can also be as effective of a tool for an artist as any amount of prestidigitation.

 

Brad Henderson performs at and produces custom, private, and corporate events all over the world. He is a collector of magic props, books, and posters, Japanese puzzle boxes, automata, contemporary art, Disneyana, and other oddities. He is a published author and recognized expert on magic, mind reading, and hypnosis. He lives in Austin, Texas.     www.austinmagician.com      www.bradhenderson.com 

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