Printable Version
Pronunciation: ho-kês po-kês Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun, Interjection

Meaning: 1. (Interjection) Hocus-pocus is a "magic" word uttered by a magician that is supposed to call forth the magic of a prestidigitator; it is a near synonym of abracadabra. 2. (Noun) It may, however, be used in reference to magic tricks themselves or, metaphorically, any trickery involving behind-the-scenes or under-the-table deception.

Notes: Since this word is a noun, given the English tendency to 'verb' nouns freely, you will probably run into words like hocus-pocused and hocus-pocusing. Hocus-pokery doesn't surprise me at all, given the potential influence of jiggery-pokery with the same meaning.

In Play: Hocus-pocus began its life as a phrase uttered by magicians imitating the magic words used by witches to cast spells: "You want a raise in your allowance? Do you think I can say, 'Hocus-pocus,' and pull money out of my ear?" However, since magicians depend on deception, today this word most often refers to real trickery: "What sort of hocus-pocus did Phil Anders use to get Marian Kine to go out with him?"

Word History: In his book on witchcraft, A Candle in the Dark (1655), Thomas Ady wrote: "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 currently without discovery." Archbishop (of Canterbury) John Tillotson later claimed in 1742, "In all probability those common juggling words of hocus pocus are nothing else but a corruption of hoc est corpus (meum) "this is (my) body", by way of ridiculous imitation of the priests of the Church of Rome in their trick of Transubstantiation." (This is yet another word included in The 100 Funniest Words in English, but was neglected in the Good Word series. By the way, the book makes a swell Christmas gift for word-lovers.)

Dr. Goodword,

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