“Hoax”: just a little etymological hocus-pocus

Hillary Clinton keeps hitting Donald Trump over his claim that climate change is a hoax. While hoax is Clinton’s word, Trump did tweet that the Chinese created climate change to hurt US manufacturing. That’s a bit of magical thinking, shall we say, especially if we consider the roots of the word hoax (not to mention science).

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“By the virtue of hocus pocus…” A frontispiece from an early magic book, the 1635 Hocus Pocus Junior: The Anatomy of Legerdemain, or the Art of Juggling. Image from the Library of Congress.

Hoax

English has been pulling off hoaxes since the very end of the 18th century. The Oxford English Dictionary first cites the word as a verb in 1796, entered into Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: “Hoaxing, bantering, ridiculing. Hoaxing a quiz; joking an odd fellow. University wit.” The noun form emerges in the following decade, and has since connoted a fraud involving an elaborate or mischievous fabrication or fiction.

Most etymologists suppose that hoax develops out of hocus, which was a 17th-century noun and verb for “trick” – and later a criminal term for “drugging” someone, especially by means of liquor. Hocus is shortened from hocus pocus, used as a nickname for a “juggler” since the 1620s. Today, we admire jugglers for their deft hands and ball skills, but historically, jugglers were jesters and magicians, hence their – and ultimately the word hoax’s – association with various tricks. 

An Anglican bishop, John Tillotson, attempted some lexical legerdemain in his 1694 etymology for hocus pocus: “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.” In the Latin liturgy, a priest blesses the Eucharistic host qua sacrificial body of Jesus Christ by saying Hoc est corpus, or Hoc est corpus meum: “This is my body.” Devout Catholics believe the host actually becomes the body of Christ, which may help you appreciate Tillotson’s dig on his Christian counterparts. 

Hocus pocus, more likely, was just sham or dog Latin, words invented by these 17th-century performers to sound like Latin, perhaps playing with this prestige language of learning to lend an air of antique mystique to their act. Hocus-pocus was used of “jugglers” by 1624, as the magical formula by 1632. Hiccius doccius was another fakus Latinus magical formula the early conjurors used.

Hocus pocus may have pulled some other words out of its hat, too, like hokey-pokey, a slang variation for “hocus pocus” in the mid-1800s and a name for a cheap ice cream some decades after. (The origin of the dance is a bit more turned around.) And hokum – originally theater slang for “melodramatic speech,” now “nonsense,” which describes so much of what we’ve heard this election – apparently blends hocus-pocus and bunkum.

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