Hey presto


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Hey presto'?

‘Hey presto’ 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 – ‘Hey presto!’.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Hey presto'?

‘Hey presto’, and its US variant ‘presto chango’, are both formed as intensifiers of the word presto.

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. It was later adopted by magicians as an exclamation with the implied meaning of ‘all of a sudden’. An early example of its use in that context is from the play Beggar’s Bush, by the English writer Francis Beaumont:

Here are three balls, These balls shall be three bullets, One, two, and three: ascentibus, malentibus. Presto, be gone: they are vanish’d

The date this was written isn’t known as it wasn’t published and performed until several years later. However, Beaumont died in 1616 so it must pre-date that.

Hey presto began being used to denote tricks by 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.

Trend of hey presto in printed material over time

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.

Gary Martin

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.