Over the centuries many facetious formations and some more flexible words have been brought to life in haphazardly and oddly fashioned manners. Among the hundreds of such words many can be more or less put into categories. Some contain puns like anecdotage from anecdote plus dotage; others are English words created to read as Latin ones, like circumbendibus. Some of my favorites are humorously long words like, gobbledygook and snollygoster. Others are the pseudo- or mock Latin words like: bogus, holus-bolus, and hocus-pocus.

This charade of Latin lingo means to play tricks on or deceive. Nearly everyone has seen a magician perform a trick and exclaim the word Hocus-Pocus! The magician sleights-of-hand or tricks are designed to disguise deception by distraction. Hocus-pocus today is defined as an activity deliberately done for the purpose of distracting attention or meaningless talk.

Used as a verb; "to hocus-pocus in politics" or as an adverb;” to hocus-pocusly convert,” hocus-pocus is an intentional action or dialogue meant to stop someone from seeing what’s really happening, like what a salesman or politician is really up to. What that blueprint was and where it came from is definably in doubt among many etymological experts. One source says it could be a variation of a mythic wizard named "Ochus Bochus" suggesting another possibility, mentioned in current Oxford dictionaries, is was derived from a later Latin nonsense phrase used by magicians,"hax pax max Deus adimax".

The syllabication of this reduplicate is ho·cus-po·cus along with hoity-toity it came into the popular vernacular during the 17th century. In classical Greek, grammatical reduplication serves to form the perfect of the verb often times in English they become informal and whimsical, with contrasts that affect the consonant often involving an opening h-sound like hanky-panky and harum-scarum. Words that hocus-pocussed from this one are hokum for pretentious nonsense. It's almost certainly a mingling of hocus-pocus and bunkum. Hocus is another offspring used a transitive verb meaning to ‘take in or hoax; stupefy a person with drugs; drug with liquor. In 1796 hoax appeared in print probably as a contraction of the hocus in hocus-pocus.

Londo wasn’t too far from the truth when he wondered What if the hokey pokey really is what it's all about? The word experts agree that hokey pokey and hanky panky originated from hocus pocus, but one professor of slang Eric Partridge favors the version that hanky panky comes from handkerchief, which magicians often used in their acts of prestidigitation. You might be surprised to learn that hokey pokey, initially spelled hoky poky didn’t begin as the name of a dance. Instead, when it first appeared in writing during the mid 19th century it meant "trickery or double dealing". By 1841 the British had changed hocus-pocus into hanky- panky, the Americans took it a step further as an expansion of the "trickery" concept to mean "fooling around sexually, especially in infidelity.” Meanwhile back across the ocean the British originated the Hokey Pokey dance where it was and is still called the Hokey Cokey then, experts claim an American G.I. turned it into a musical hit when he returned to the United States where it’s still heard today in roller rinks.

So what exactly is the hokey pokey on the hanky panky about hocus-pocus? I don’t know. The experts aren’t all that sure either. They say that sometime during the middle of the 17th century jugglers began using the term hocus-pocus along with Presto!, Italian for “quickly” when they made things disappear into thin air. They say that this is probably a mangled borrowing, claiming that the magician's patter phrase hocus-pocus is a corruption of the Latin Mass, hoc est corpus. While a number of them say there is little evidence to support this the The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000 defines hocus-pocus in part:

    Possibly from an alteration of Latin hoc est corpus (meum), this is (my) body (words used in the Eucharist at the time of transubstantiation)
Transubstantiation is the belief that the bread and the wine are miraculously changed into the body and blood of Christ at the high point of the Mass celebration when the priest quotes Jesus’ words from The Last Supper. During this era of the Catholic church all Masses were said in Latin; Hoc est corpus meum is Latin for Jesus’ words,” This is my body.” It was this phrase hoc est corpus that the American Heritage Dictionary says became hocus-pocus.

Hocus-pocus appeared as a common term in 1640 as a mock-Latin formula or incantation used by conjurors, witches, jugglers, and carnival folk of the Middle Ages. In an 1655 exposition on witchcraft, A Candle in the Dark; or, a Treatise Concerning the Nature of Witches and Witchcraft Thomas Ady noted ;

    "I will speak of one man…that went about in King James his time…who called himself, The Kings Majesties most excellent Hocus Pocus, and so was called, because that at the playing of every Trick, he used to say, Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo, a dark composure of words, to blinde the eyes of the beholders, to make his Trick pass the more currantly without discovery."
John Tillotson, the Archbishop of Canterbury tried to palm off his own theory when he alleged in a 1742 homily:
    "In all probability those common juggling words of hocus pocus are nothing else but a corruption of hoc est corpus, by way of ridiculous imitation of the priests of the Church of Rome in their trick of Transubstantiation."
It’s fairly common knowledge that Tillotson was more interested in casting doubt on the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation by likening it to a magician's trick than he was in providing an accurate etymology with his anti-Catholic sermon so it may be taken with a good-sized grain of salt. After that, hocus-pocus became a derogatory term, mocking the miracle of the Eucharistic transformation lead many Catholic magicians to avoid using the word.

From whence The Kings Majesties most excellent Hocus Pocus got a hold of the words he used in the company of his magic tricks is in doubt and eventually the term became a name to identify any juggler or magician. The juggler whose stage name was documented during the beginning of the 17th century makes the phrase older than the Archbishop, but it is still for the most part, the misinterpretation of "Hoc Est Enim Corpus Meum " that has come down to us as hocus-pocus which ironically likens transubstantiation with magic which, if one thinks about it, is the very definition of magic: “the ability to will changes in reality;” the priest wills the bread to become God. No matter what the source, hocus-pocus began as a nom de plume for jugglers and conjurers sometime late in the 17th century it developed into an expression for a trick or deception, and that’s what it’s all about!


The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.

The List:

Magic-tips.com :

Museum of Hoaxes :

Online Etymology Dictionary:

Take Our Word For It:

World Wide Words:


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