I’ve hinted at telling this story a couple of times.
Back in August, 2016 I wrote a post about what was considered the most beautiful word/phrase in the English language. For some reason which I still don’t get, the phrase selected was “cellar door”. In that post I mentioned what may be my most favorite word in the English language.
And more recently, in February of this year, I wrote about a guided tour we took of Oxford University. The guide told us the story of All Souls’ College, arguably the hardest graduate school to get into in the world, and how it used to have, as part of its admissions process, an exam simply called “The Essay”. Students arrive the morning of the essay and are handed an envelope. Inside the envelope is just an index card with just one word on it. The applicants had three hours to write an essay on just that one word. In that post I mentioned that while in college I had aced a watered down version of a similar assignment, having to write an essay about just one word.
In both posts I noted that at some point I would write a more detailed post about that favorite word of mine. Well that day has arrived.
So what is the word that I referenced in those two posts?
If you’re not familiar with the word, here is the definition from Google:
– skillful use of one’s hands when performing conjuring tricks
I first came across the word when I was maybe 10-12 years old. I was quite fascinated about magic (I still am), and used to read books about how to do magic tricks. (In fact, one of the best lines I’ve ever heard was related to my reading of magic books. I remember going to the local library and checking out 10 books about magic, which I believe was the limit on one subject. During the checkout process the librarian asked me if I could learn how to make the library disappear. It was quick, it was original, it related to what I was checking out, and was perhaps a not so subtle hint of what she thought about her job. Anyway…)
It was likely during the reading of all of those books on magic that I came across the word legerdemain, and for some reason, I just liked saying the word, over and over.
So fast forward a few years, and I was in a college English Comp class, and one of our assignments was to write a 500 word essay on any word we wanted. While many of my fellow classmates may have had trouble deciding what word to write about, I immediately knew. Maybe I wasn’t a magician, but at least I could write about magic.
But once I sat down to write the essay, I started to realize it wasn’t easy to write 500 words about just one word. After staring at a mostly blank sheet of paper for quite some time, an idea popped into my mind about what to do, but it would be risky.
Here is a rough approximation of what I wrote:
“The word I would like to write about is legerdemain. And in keeping with the meaning of the word, I have decided to write the rest of this essay in invisible ink. If you would like to read the full essay, you need to give me an “A” and I will sprinkle the necessary magic dust on the paper and the words will be revealed.”
I then skipped several lines and wrote the words “The end.” 67 words.
I was very nervous the day I handed in the paper, especially when I looked around the room at everyone else’s 500-word essays.
Well two days later the teacher had graded our papers and was getting ready to return them. Before doing so, he announced that he wanted to read his favorite essay to the class. He then started saying the word “legerdemain” over and over (much like I used to when I was 12 years old).
I could feel my face turning bright red as he was saying this, and it got even more red as he started to read the essay. At the end of the essay he said that he gave the paper an “A”, and now wanted the magic dust so that he could see the rest of the words. Magically, my face turned an even brighter shade of red, and I felt the eyes of the entire class staring at me (in hindsight, it was more likely that hardly anyone was paying attention).
Class finally ended, and I had regained my composure a bit. I quickly left the classroom, and couldn’t wait to go back to my room and tell my roommates what had just happened.
Needless to say, as evidenced by the fact that I am writing about this 40 years later, I consider it one of the highlights of my college days. (Along with actually meeting Penn and Teller while in college)
And it was all because of just one word.
Go ahead, say it, you know you want to.
And if you want to see some really good legerdemain, here’s a video of a guy that stumped Penn and Teller. (Hat tip to my student, Jeff, for making me aware of this video in one of his wonderful daily blog posts).