Lexical Investigations: Hokey

Hokey, Hokey-pokey, hocus pocus, lexical investigationsThe story of hokey shows how tangled the backstory of words can sometimes seem to be. Hokey first appeared after World War II as American slang for “overly sentimental” or “contrived. The term’s immediate predecessor seems to be hokum, a blunt American term for “nonsense,” coined earlier in the 20th century by combining hocus-pocus (or hokey-pokey) with bunkum, another word which also means “nonsense.”

Hocus-pocus itself is the oldest member of this word family, originating as early as the 17th century, and meaning “sleight of hand” or “trickery”—possibly derived from a rhyming formula used by jugglers and magicians. The other related word mentioned above, hokey-pokey, is a variant of hocus-pocus, and emerged in the mid-19th century as an adjective describing something cheap or fake, a meaning that can also be associated with “deception.”

There are other senses of hokey-pokey, but as a noun, for example, the 19th-century name for ice cream or shaved ice sold by street vendors; and the mid-20th-century  name of the popular “hokey-pokey” song and dance, in which “You put your right foot in, [and] you put your right foot out.” But both these senses seem unrelated to the adjectival hokey-pokey and hokey.

Relevant Quotations:
If you think this word story is a bit hokey, you can’t be faulted. There is often a lot of juggling and a bit of magic in the way words are formed and evolve. “A little hokey but basically honest.”
The New York Times Book Review, Vol 2 (1944)

“Part of its appeal is in its occasional moments of pathos; ‘hokey’ but obviously effective.”
—Current Biography Yearbook, Vol 25 (1949)

“Those which might have some depth are corny enough to be hokey, and almost hokey enough to be folky, since folky is already so hokey anyhow.”
—Richard Meltzer, The Aesthetics of Rock, 1987

Read our previous post about the word critical thinking.
A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.) Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.


  1. Meg Godfrey -  January 21, 2015 - 5:35 am

    Our Priest recently told us the Hokey-Pokey song was a mockery of the Latin Mass. The words the Priest uses do not translate to this is THE body. They are “Hoc es corpus meum”. This is MY body. At that time the Priest is quoting the words of the Lord Jesus Christ at the last supper.

  2. Gaston -  July 8, 2013 - 7:35 am

    This article doesn’t offer any etymological source for the word. In any case, the latin Mass says: “hoc est corpus meum.”

  3. CV -  July 7, 2013 - 7:58 am

    I love the Buncombe County tall tale ‘Ole Tboy’! That is hilarious, I love that area and your version is certainly more interesting than their etiology of their namesake (http://www.buncombecounty.org/About-BC/AboutBC/SynopsisI.aspx). This will make me smile every time I near the Asheville area, which is usually at least once a year and now that my sister has moved to the Knoxville area will probably be more often.

  4. martin kelly -  July 7, 2013 - 4:53 am

    Further to the latin source already mentioned it was mockery of the catholic mass phrase “hoc est in corpus meum” said at the moment of consecration created by protestant sceptics and repeated by the anti-papist mobs in 17th c. England…me thinks.

  5. Achilles Mina -  July 7, 2013 - 3:53 am

    Your landing-page title says, “What does hokey-pokey come from?” Eh?

  6. NowConfused -  July 6, 2013 - 3:43 am

    OK, that’s wild. … Jeff Eggers points out above that the “Google Translate” translation of the article’s explanation of “hoc est paucus” is possible!!! On the other hand, the folks chiming in with the Catholic comments seem to have valid explanation, too. Maybe it’s both things? Maybe a Protestant heard a performer say Hoc Est Paucus, and was watching the hands, and then turned the experience to a whole new meaning?

  7. Scott -  July 5, 2013 - 9:20 am

    Michael Quinion of WorldWideWords has an interesting discussion of Hocus Pocus at http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-hoc1.htm in which he gives little credit to the suggestion that it was a corruption of “hoc est enim corpus meum”.

  8. Jeff Eggers -  July 5, 2013 - 7:21 am

    Gene Fellner mentioned “hoc est paucus” above. The handy-dandy Google Translate service, verified by my son’s 7th grade latin training, report this as meaning “This is (a) small…” Seems plausable to me in referring to a little bit of magic.

  9. Sarah -  July 5, 2013 - 3:51 am

    The latin root of this word “This is the Body” and the connection to Hocus pocus is no accident.
    When Puritans were trying to undermine the Catholics and the Mass, in comes the Hokey Cokey. To undermin Priests and the validity of what they were doing, the words, along with the actions, made a mockery of the Mass, and put the fear of God into the Puritans, who were fearful of anything related to magic.
    So “You put your Right arm in” is when the Priest raises his arms to elevate the host etc..
    Next time you are in a Catholic Mass watch the Priest and his manual actions and it will put it all in a whole new light.

  10. Brett -  July 4, 2013 - 8:09 pm

    “Hoc est corpus” is Latin for “this is the body”, which is the phrase of the Latin mass that the priest says as he raises up the bread at the moment of transubstantiation, i.e. when the bread miraculously turns into human flesh except in any way that is detectable by any means.

    Protestants used the garbled form “hocus-pocus” to indicate contempt either for the use of ‘unintelligible’ Latin in the Catholic mass, or for the doctrine of the transubstantiation, or both. And from there it became a stand-in for any pretended magical incantation or superstitious nonsense.

  11. Courtenay -  July 4, 2013 - 4:52 pm

    In Australia the dance is the Hokey Pokey (as well as the ice cream); as ColinB says, in Britain, it’s the Hokey Cokey. Does anyone know why? And regardless of what it’s called… what if that really IS what it’s all about?? ;o)

  12. Eric -  July 4, 2013 - 3:08 pm

    Never heard “bunkum,” but certainly the phrase “That’s a lot of bunk!”

  13. Charles R. -  July 4, 2013 - 8:35 am

    “Hocus pocus,” which is said when something magically appears, originated as an obloquious expression belittling the words used during the Rite of Consecration of the Catholic Church (Hoc est corpus [meum], or, This is [my] body). Catholics believe that by accomplishing the entire Mass Ritual, which culminates when these words are spoken by the priest, the bread becomes the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus (called, transubstantiation).

  14. Lisa -  July 4, 2013 - 8:07 am

    H-P is my favorite interpretation is of life, are you in or are you out? only you can decide, and until you do you just keep doing the dance.

  15. Personal Branding -  July 4, 2013 - 7:38 am

    “Bunkum” is almost certainly the British “Buncombe”.

  16. kevin -  July 4, 2013 - 12:53 am

    ok..“Hocus Pocus” actually stems from the corrupted form of Latin “Hoc es corpus” “This is the body”, from the Roman Catholic mass.

  17. James Lear -  July 3, 2013 - 7:46 pm

    In a related story:
    In August of 2012, I heard a re-airing of a radio broadcast of an interview with the granddaughter of the Canadian creator (a former miner) of the song/dance. In that, she revealed the origin and the changing history or what was originally called the “Cokey Pokey.”
    It was a variation of what the miners sang in the sub-zero temperatures of the Canadian Coal Mines of the 1800′s.
    I’ll not tell you “what its all about,” as you’d not believe me if I told you. No one does. But to give you a hint: look to the history of Coca-Cola to work it through.

  18. Michael -  July 3, 2013 - 7:34 pm

    According to Wikipedia, during the debate on the Missouri Compromise (1820), the U.S. Congressman whose district included Buncombe County delivered a long and irrelevant speech, saying he was speaking “for Buncombe”.

  19. Christian Hanna -  July 3, 2013 - 12:37 pm

    Hocus Pocus is my favorite magic words.

  20. svenjamin -  July 3, 2013 - 12:18 pm

    One of my favorite bumper stickers reads: “What if the Hokey-Pokey IS what it’s all about?” Or, something along those lines.

  21. Ole TBoy -  July 3, 2013 - 11:58 am

    Bunkum comes from Buncombe county in North Carolina where Asheville is located. Years ago a Senator or Representative from that area made a habit of reading or submitting something to the Congressional Record almost every day to prove to his voters that he was about the business of serving them. His practice came to be known as “Buncombe” and eventually “bunkum.” Also note that on I40 west of Asheville just as you enter the county of Buncombe there is a speed trap. Do drive the limit. I got a ticket there on Christmas day a few years back. No mercy from those Buncombe county patrolmen. Get the money is all they know.

  22. HOKEY | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  July 3, 2013 - 11:54 am

    [...] ‘Hokey’ neither Pokey — Nonsense is its own reward — Good ole Larry Laprise – With no thanks to Henry Ford — Whether or not in a state transcending smoky — Wrote the Hokey Pokey Song  — Sometime in the Late 1940s – Silly old song debatable — Deeper meaning oh so re-inflatable — Darned Ski Resort humor — Or simply another rumor — Tis an Alien somewhere in New York — Poking mis and sundrie Hokey where it shouldn’t oughta go. –>>L.T.Rhyme This entry was posted in DICTCOMHOTWORD, L.T.Rhyme and tagged LT, LTRhyme, the HOT WORD on July 3, 2013 by LTRhyme. [...]

  23. Mike MacLeod -  July 3, 2013 - 2:22 am

    “Bunkum” is almost certainly the British “Buncombe”.

  24. Anonymous -  July 3, 2013 - 1:46 am

    Hokey Pokey is our flavored ice cream here in New Zealand, with little crunchy bits, YUM!

  25. ColinB -  July 3, 2013 - 1:44 am

    In Britain the song & dance is known as the hokey-cokey

  26. Jonathan Sheman -  July 2, 2013 - 5:56 pm

    Gene thank you so much for the insight of the origins of the word, but what does the Latin translation mean?

  27. twirlima -  July 2, 2013 - 4:06 pm

    so that’s what it’s all about!

  28. Calya -  July 2, 2013 - 8:46 am

    “Hocus Pocus” actually stems from the corrupted form of Latin “Hoc es corpus” “This is the body”, from the Roman Catholic mass.

    Presumably reversed, to steal the power of the priest’s magick and add a Magickal flair to deceptive spells and slight of hand.

  29. Gene Fellner -  July 2, 2013 - 8:12 am

    Many years ago I read an etymology that traced it to a Latin incantation beginning “hoc est paucus.”

  30. MILAN SCHONBERGER -  July 2, 2013 - 7:31 am

    I am Czech and in that language hocus-pocus and abra-cadabra are a common expressions of magic. In fact pocus – spelled pokus in Czech – means trial or attempt as though the outcome of the magic were not wholly


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