They are the acne of the Web, stupid rumors about celebrities. Justin Bieber and Britney Spears are frequent targets, and yesterday, the venerable Bill Cosby actually had to appear online and on TV to quash the frothing gossip that, well, he was dead. As Mark Twain said, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
Bigfoot and Hitler’s diaries are two of the more famous hoaxes in recent history. The Internet has empowered hucksters and hooligans to spread spurious stuff like never before. A hoax is specifically “something intended to deceive or defraud.” The possible origins of the word, however, are far more compelling than a trillion Bigfoots in flying saucers.
Hoax is most likely an alteration of “hocus,” as in a magician saying “hocus pocus.” And hocus pocus is a truly bizarre specimen in the lexicon. It is a fake Latin phrase, used by jugglers and magicians for centuries to impress the uninformed. Hocas Pocas has been a name for performers going back to at least the Renaissance. There are three theories regarding the source of the phrase. Let’s start with the most commonly accepted.
The Eucharist, a central Christian prayer, contains the Latin “hoc est enim corpus meum,” meaning “for this is my body.” Jesus is said to have spoken these words at the Last Supper. The British clergyman John Tillotson speculates in 1694 that hocus pocus is not only a corruption of this key Latin phrase, but a parody in keeping with the occasionally vulgar humor of prestidigitators.
A more obscure theory posits that a magical demon from Norse mythology, Ochus Bochus, is the source of hocus-pocus. An even more fanciful hypothesis suggests that Ochus Bochus is a corruption of Bacchus, (Dionysius), the Greek god of wine and revelry.
The Welsh term hovea pwca, “a goblin’s trick,” is a third candidate for the origin of hoax. There is a fourth possibility; the phrase is sheer nonsense, meant to attract attention — much like the repellent rumor that Bill Cosby passed away.
Which of these explanations for “hoax” sounds the most likely to you? And what is your favorite hoax of all time? Please share, but don’t start any nasty rumors.