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Forogtten realms wiki contains information about the history of cantrips in DnD, going back to first edition.

Cantrips first appeared in print in Dragon magazine and were then reprinted in the First Edition Unearthed Arcana. They were well supported in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting through articles written by Ed Greenwood for Dragon and later in official AD&D Forgotten Realms supplements.

It seems like this is the first official use of the term, but where did the term itself come from? Was it slang used by the community before this and if so, what did it describe?

Or was the name first invented for the Dragon article, and if so are there any interviews etc. asking about the origin?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you done any research in any form prior to asking, like looking in a dictionary? Or are you asking if the designers ever said where they took their inspiration from? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Sep 29, 2023 at 15:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ I didn't look in the dictionary, as I didn't consider it was a pre-existing word. I did try to research the origins in DnD. \$\endgroup\$
    – MannerPots
    Sep 29, 2023 at 15:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've rolled back your update as it invalidates some other answers - however it does seem that your intended question may have been "When was the first time the word cantrip was used in D&D?" Is that accurate? It's too late for this question, but that one is askable as well. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Sep 29, 2023 at 17:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not an answer, but worth noting: after being used in DnD, the word "cantrip" was exported from DnD to Magic the Gathering, where it means "a spell that draws a replacement spell on casting", and then from Magic to Dominion, where it means "an Action card which offers +1 Action and +1 Card". \$\endgroup\$
    – Stef
    Oct 1, 2023 at 15:13

3 Answers 3

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The other answers correctly assert the origin of "cantrip" dating back centuries before D&D, but I'd like to add some context for how it made its way into D&D.

In Dragon Magazine #59 (March 1982), Gary Gygax wrote an article titled "Cantrips: Minor magics for would-be wizards". It introduced a large number of weak 0th-level spells, mostly having mundane uses like sweetening food or polishing boots.

It's important to note that Gygax wrote this article, because it was very much his style to take archaic English words from the dictionary and give them a specific meaning in D&D. He would also use intentionally obscure words, a writing style which people called "High Gygaxian". For example, here's a quote from a 2005 ENWorld forum post where he mentions it:

My own thesaurus has hand-written additions I have made over the years, and both of my main dictionalries are unexpurgated, one from 1910 the other from 1930.

In D&D 5th edition, mechanical needs saw cantrips promoted to more powerful spells.

The original meaning of the word "cantrip" is a term from the Scots language, originating from a term referring to a musical notation used by pipers, and which then came to mean a magical incantation. It's used to in the sense of magic in Rabbie Burns' poem Tam O'Shanter, from 1790:

Coffins stood round like open presses,
That shaw'd the dead in their last dresses;
And by some devilish cantrip slight
Each in its cauld hand held a light

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is "dictionalries" Gygax's original spelling? (Normally I would assume it's a typo, but given the context, it seems possible it's intentional.) \$\endgroup\$
    – DLosc
    Oct 1, 2023 at 21:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DLosc It's in the original forum post at any rate. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 2, 2023 at 4:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DLosc Gygax made a lot of typos. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 2, 2023 at 4:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ I believe this should be the top answer. Thank you for the full history. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Oct 2, 2023 at 11:42
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The etymology is unclear, but cantrip is a word meaning 'magic spell' whose usage long predates (at least back to the 1710s) its modern use in RPGs.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Neat, I never considered that it predated DnD. I'll wait a bit to accept, since I'm still interested in whether it was used in the RPG community before then, but if the Dragon article is the first usage then the origin is clear. \$\endgroup\$
    – MannerPots
    Sep 29, 2023 at 15:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Cantrip was first recorded in English in the 1710s." Up to you, but I'd add that tidbit in a quote from the link (which is quite interesting). \$\endgroup\$ Sep 29, 2023 at 15:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @sam_phillips_1628534640: EGG wasn't the greatest of researchers, but he did resurface a lot of obscure words through D&D. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 29, 2023 at 17:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @sam_phillips_1628534640 in the RPG community before first edition? \$\endgroup\$
    – fectin
    Sep 30, 2023 at 1:49
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It is archaic Scottish.

It means a spell, charm, or trick.

Sc. 1725 Ramsay Gentle Shepherd Act II. Sc. ii. in Poems (1728): Here Mausy lives, a Witch, that for sma' Price Can cast her Cantraips, and give me Advice.

Mry. 1873 J. Brown Round Table Club 361: An' noo begins the cantraps roond the bilin' pot.

Ags. 1866 R. Leighton Poems (1869) 294: Now ye'll try your might on a cantrip sleight.

Edb. publ. 1779 R. Fergusson Sc. Poems (1925) 86: Ne'er . . . deal in cantrup's kittle cunning To speir how fast your days are running.

Peb. 1805 J. Nicol Poems I. 110: Then, by nae cantraip terrors scar'd, I'd catch th' Enchanter by the beard.

Keep in mind that in older writing spelling is optional.

https://www.dsl.ac.uk/entry/snd/cantrip

https://www.etymonline.com/word/cantrip

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    \$\begingroup\$ I would say, rather, that in older writing spelling is flexible. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 2, 2023 at 2:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'd say spelling was phonetic. The idea that there's some written authority for how words should be spelled (or even pronounced) is quite modern. (And of course there are multiple such authorities to choose from.) \$\endgroup\$
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 2, 2023 at 15:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DavidConrad for older writing the only consideration to spelling was whether the recipient would understand it. You also see a huge amount of local variation. \$\endgroup\$
    – John
    Oct 2, 2023 at 22:37

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