hocus-pocus, n., adj., and adv.

posted Dec 9, 2010, 1:58 AM by Professor Katz   [ updated Feb 26, 2014, 2:15 AM ]
When you want to learn everything there is to know about a particular word in English, you look in the Oxford English Dictionary in its many volumes.  Let's look up 'hocus-pocus'.

If you are connected to a university server, then you just click here:

OED: Etymology:  Appears early in 17th cent., as the appellation of a juggler (and, apparently, as the assumed name of a particular conjuror) derived from the sham Latin formula employed by him.

I like my etymology better, that 'hocus-pocus' is a corruption of 'hoc est corpus', but the OED says that the 'notion that hocus pocus was a parody of the Latin words used in the Eucharist, rests merely on a conjecture thrown out by Tillotson: see below.'

OK, let's see below:

1694    J. Tillotson Serm. xxvi. (1742) II. 237   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.

Anyway, 1624 is the first appearance of the word in English:

J. Gee, New Shreds Old Snare 21,   I alwayes thought they had their rudiments from some iugling Hocas Pocas in a quart pot.

Sometimes, in English, words do get mixed up, and 'hoc est corpus' becomes 'hocus pocus'.  A more modern example comes from that classic dialogue in Airplane!

Witness: Striker was the squadron leader. He brought us in real low. But he couldn't handle it.

Prosecutor: Buddy couldn't handle it? Was Buddy one of your crew?

Witness: Right. Buddy was the bombardier. But it was Striker who couldn't handle it, and he went to pieces.

Prosecutor: Andy went to pieces?

Witness: No. Andy was the navigator. He was all right. Buddy went to pieces. It was awful, how he came unglued.

Prosecutor: Howie came unglued?

Witness: Oh, no. Howie was a rock, the best tailgunner in the outfit. Buddy came unglued.

Prosecutor: And he bailed out?

Witness: No. Andy hung tough. Buddy bailed out. How he survived, it was a miracle.

Prosecutor: Then Howie survived?

Witness: No, 'fraid not. We lost Howie the next day.

Prosecutor: Over Macho Grande?

Witness: No. I don't think I'll ever get over Macho Grande.