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Wood on Words: Figuring out language can get pretty tricky

Barry Wood

I’m sure I’m not the first person to wonder about this, but doesn’t “trick or treat!” seem to be out of order?

The traditional interpretation of the phrase is “give me a treat or I will play a trick on you.”

Shouldn’t it be “treat or trick” then, offering the opportunity to provide a treat before the threat of a trick?

And even if the intention is to give the person answering the door the choice of providing a treat or playing a trick, receiving a treat seems the more desirable option. So why not say it first?

Once again, so much for logic when it comes to language. I suspect that early on, “trick or treat” just sounded better, and that was that.

Although the word “trick” is rooted in the notions of deception and cheating, some trickiness is just for fun.

Despite the saying that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, many people take delight in training their pets to perform unusual feats. Tapping into this, Stupid Pet Tricks became one of David Letterman’s most popular bits on his television show, even inspiring the offshoot Stupid Human Tricks.

In some card games, a trick refers to the cards played and won in a particular round. Magicians use another type of card trick to amuse and amaze. Excelling at card games usually requires luck, while sleight of hand is a skill.

Reflecting the latter notion, the adjective “tricky,” in addition to meaning “deceitful,” also can be “requiring great skill or care.”

Speaking of special skills, “trick shots” have been entertaining audiences for decades, from the old Wild West shows with the likes of Annie Oakley to modern exhibitions such as slam-dunk shootouts between basketball superstars like Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins.

In such cases, tricks become treats.

Sometimes a trick is just the ability to do something quickly or easily or “an expedient or convention of an art, craft or trade.” This is where the term “tricks of the trade” comes in.

Other idiomatic tricks include:

The informal “do the trick“ for “to bring about the desired result.”

“Not miss a trick,” an informal expression for “to be very alert.”

To “trick out (or up),” meaning “to dress up; deck; array.”

“One-trick pony,” a person who does only one thing well. (It was also the title of a 1980 movie starring singer-songwriter Paul Simon.)

“Every trick in the book” and “oldest trick in the book.” (That must be quite a book.)

And since it’s presidential election season, who can forget the political tradition of “dirty tricks”?

The phrase became infamous in the Watergate era with the shenanigans conducted on behalf of the Nixon campaign. Unfortunately, although that phrase has faded some, the tricks themselves seem be more serious and numerous.

In other words, they’re “up to their old tricks.”

So Happy Halloween!

Next week I’ll reach into my bag of tricks for a column about “treats.”

Barry Wood is a Rockford Register Star copy editor. Contact him at bwood@rrstar.com or read his blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/woodonwords/.