March 29 is National Smoke and Mirrors Day, a day that recognizes an uncommon profession and a common personality type: the magician and the deceiver, respectively.
While magicians literally use smoke and mirrors to make their tricks look legit, other types of hucksters use figurative smoke and mirrors to gobsmack and bamboozle folks.
The roots of the term seem to come from writer Jimmy Breslin, who in his 1975 book How the Good Guys Finally Won: Notes from an Impeachment Summer, wrote, "All political power is primarily an illusion... Mirrors and blue smoke, beautiful blue smoke rolling over the surface of highly polished mirrors... If somebody tells you how to look, there can be seen in the smoke great, magnificent shapes, castles and kingdoms, and maybe they can be yours."
A related term is smokescreen, which originally referred to literal smoke meant to hide military forces in advance of an attack. That sense has been found since at least 1915, and smokescreen has been a metaphor since the 1920s. Smokescreen can be a noun or a verb, as in "I see through your smokescreen!" or "I smokescreened those fools."
But I need to stop blowing smoke and get to these vocabulary words which relate to both senses of smoke and mirrors: the folks pulling a rabbit out of a hat and the varmints selling a big load of baloney.
For more lingo that will help you protect against and/or practice the art of deception, here's a complete vocabulary list: Smoke and Mirrors: The Lingo of Illusion and Deception
An illusion is either something that isn't there at all or looks like something it isn't. If you're really hungry, and your friend's face suddenly looks like a hamburger, that's probably an illusion. Also, you may live in a cartoon. Magicians rely on illusions, but there are illusions everywhere, and we all have them. Reckless people may have the illusion that they can't get hurt or die; people who overspend may have the illusion that they'll never have to pay off their credit cards. When an illusion is dispelled, you're left with the truth, which is often a bummer.
Some illusions are meant to entertain us, like a magician cutting a woman in half or a professional wrestler appearing to hit another with a sledgehammer. Spoiler alert: Accidents notwithstanding, all of the above are doing fine. But a scam uses smoke and mirrors for a more criminal purpose: swindling someone out of money. Scams can happen in person, on the internet, or anywhere one person is tricking the other into spending money on nothing. This little four-letter word almost sounds like an obscenity, which is the kind of language you're likely to use if you get scammed. A Ponzi scheme is a complicated sort of scam.
Scams involve deception, which is similar to deceit and trickery. You could call a lie a deception, but the term covers more than just verbal deceit. Impersonating someone is a deception: so is setting up a phony company to smuggle your illegal money into Wakanda, or whatever fake internet princes are up to these days.
People often use prevaricate as a euphemism for lie, a word that ironically has plenty of truth to it and is too blunt for some situations. But sometimes prevarication (the noun form) isn't straight-up lying: it can mean someone is just avoiding a subject or leading listeners up the garden path (an excellent idiom referring to a type of misdirection). Whether a prevaricator is lying or just evading, they're definitely hiding something and don't want to say what's on their mind.
This colorful word—seriously, is there a funner term?—has referred to trickery since the early 1700s. To bamboozle is to confuse, perplex, and baffle. This word boggles your mind so badly you might not even realize your bam got boozled.
Here's another humorous word with a similar meaning: if you're been bamboozled, you're pretty likely to be befuddled. To be befuddled is to be confused. People get befuddled all the time: the news, math problems, and James Joyce novels are all potentially befuddling things and situations. Even a genius in some area could be befuddled by something simpler. For example, legendary comic book creator Jack Kirby (who co-created Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and many others) was a prolific artist and writer, but he was befuddled by riding a bike or driving a car. Everyone is befuddled by something: you can call this baffled state befuddlement. It's much better to be befuddled by a magician than your taxes.
When you mystify someone, you confuse and perplex them. Magicians mystify in a good way; devious politicians and scammers mystify in a bad way. Many things can be mystifying, such as the origin to a disease, the culprit behind a carefully orchestrated crime, and the question of life in outer space. You can mystify other people, and you can also say "I'm mystified" if you don't understand something. When you explain something thoroughly so others understand it, you demystify it, like if a magician revealed the secret to a trick. Teachers demystify things all the time.
This is a fancy word for "sleight of hand." Magicians, with their card tricks are other gimmicks, are masters of prestidigitation. The term prestidigitator, often refers to a juggler.
Since I'm a freelance writer, not a con artist, I hope this list has been more demystifying than bamboozling.
Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore."Click here to read other articles by Mark Peters
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