Words-worth: Prestige

Suppliers of 'prestige' goods, be they cars, watches or handbags, might be surprised to hear what the word originally meant.

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Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012

'Prestige' is first recorded in an early dictionary, Thomas Blount's Glossographia, published in 1656, which explained the foreign words then flooding into English. He defined 'prestiges', a French-derived word then generally used in the plural, as 'deceits, impostures, delusions, cousening (cheating) tricks'.

That had been its meaning in French, too, since the 14th century. It came from the Latin praestigia, meaning deception, illusion or a juggler's trick. In the mid-18th century, it acquired a new meaning in French of a quality that inspired admiration. We followed that lead in the early 19th century, in the context of individuals whose glamour seemed almost magical, such as Napoleon Bonaparte.

'Prestige products', an expression first used in 1914 in the US, are those that confer 'prestige', which is to say glamour, on their owners. And that's the kind of trick people will pay handsomely for.

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