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"What was so demoralizing to me was to envision my two aunts, who had long been figures of power and authority to conjure with, reduced in the last stage of their life to such servility, fear, and silence."

I know that there exists a phrase "a name to conjure with" which, according to the Oxford Dictionary, means "the name of an important person within a particular sphere of activity." Is "to conjure with" in this sentence a variation of that phrase? If so, what does it mean?

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You are on the right lines with the definition you found, it is just of a more specific idiom.

"A name to conjure with" means that the person or thing named is important, well-known, or well-respected.

The author of your text has played with the idiom a little and said that they were "figures of power and authority to conjure with", which I would take to mean that they were important or well-known as figures of power or authority.

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  • The old meaning was to use the name of a powerful being (usually a deity) in an utterance or magic spell e.g. to conjure the Devil to depart, one might say 'In the name of God, I conjure you to depart'. Now just means to make an impression, e.g. I knew HG Wells when he was a boy, my cousin is the Prime Minister, etc. Feb 23 at 12:04

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