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The meaning and origin of the expression: Presto chango

Presto chango

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Presto chango'?

'Presto chango' is an exclamation used by conjurers and jugglers to signal an instantaneous or magical transformation. It is interchangeable with 'abracadabra' and is often written with an exclamation mark - 'Presto chango!'.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Presto chango'?

The meaning and origin os the phrase 'Presto chango''Presto chango' is a variant of the earlier exclamation 'hey presto', which is used primarily in the USA.

Before either expression was coined, conjurers and other stage performers simply said 'presto!' to draw attention to the culmination of a trick.

Presto is an Italian word meaning 'quickly' and it was used in England with that sense from the 13th century.

Hey presto began being used in England in the 18th century. The English writer Henry Fielding used it in 1732 in his farce The Lottery:

The Hammer goes down, Hey Presto! be gone, And up comes the Twenty Pound.

We go forward to the 19th century and 'presto chango' began being used in the USA. It took various spellings - 'presto change', 'presto changeo' and 'presto chango'. 'Presto! change' is recorded in England in 1824 and it soon migrated to the USA and became 'presto chango'. An early US example comes from the Pensacola Gazette & West Florida Advertiser April, 1824:

A tailor cannot drop his bodkin, a brick mason his trowel, or a grocer his cent per cent on coffee and candles; and become my Lord Coke or Hale by a ‘presto change’.

It is found in the Ohio newspaper The Huron Reflector, February 1844:

Hey! presto! chango! as the juggler says - Kitty Grimes was not to be married to James Duncan after all.

As you can see this citation does double duty and uses both 'hey presto' and 'presto chango' together.

Although 'presto change' was first used in the UK the 'presto chango' form can be said to be American - in fact few people outside the USA would know what it meant.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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