Famous Sayings #166 — ‘Hocus Pocus’ and Other Magical Terms

October 31, 2019

And for my next trick, I will make this $100 bill disappear. Abracadabra, Hocus Pocus, …

Image by RachelBostwick from Pixabay

After a month of not doing these posts (or any type of post, except one this month), it’s time to get back into the habit of sharing another Famous Sayings post. This post is a bit rushed since I want to finish it before Halloween is completely over, so I might have to edit it later, but the vital information should still be here now.

What Does ‘Hocus-Pocus’ Mean?

The term “hocus pocus” — which may be written as two words or one hyphenated word — can mean one of a few things:

  • It’s a meaningless, pseudo-Latin term mainly used by parlor magicians as they perform magic tricks.
  • It refers to the sleight of hand itself.
  • When used as an intransitive verb, it refers to the act of tricking someone.

Oftentimes, when we here the term “hocus pocus,” the person using it may also so “Abracadabra” and/or some other pseudo-Latin phrases. This may seem somewhat humorous, especially if the magician using pseudo-Latin phrases is also a comedian. Yet, if that person can successfully trick the audience, the phrase was thus used as a way to distract the audience (Collins English Dictionary).

When Was the Term ‘Hocus-Pocus’ Coined?

The origin of “Hocus Pocus” is unclear. According to Merriam-Webster, the term “hocus-pocus” was first used to mean “sleight of hand” as early as 1647. The use of the term as a transitive verb mean meaning “to play tricks on [someone]” was recorded in 1774. However, a few sources I consulted pointed the use of the term around the 1620s and to a text from the 1630s that contained the term.

The Online Etymology Dictionary states that Hocas Pocas was a common name for magicians in the 1620s. (Magicians were also known as jugglers back then.)

In 1634, a book entitled Hocus Pocus Junior – The Anatamy of Legerdemain was printed, but its author wasn’t named. Later, the author was referred to as Hocus Pocus.

Several theories exist for the term’s origin, but many believe that Hocus Pocus may be a perversion of real Latin terms, especially those tied to Christianity. For instance, English prelate John Tillotson (1630-1694) posited that “Hocus Pocus” may have been used to Hoc est corpus meum (“This is my body”), a blessing spoken at Catholic Mass during the Eucharist.

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.

Did You Know?

Some people believe that “hocus pocus” is the origin for the verb “hoax.”

Abracadabra first showed up in a second-century poem (Adams). The word was used by the Gnostics and one explanation of the term was that is was a combination of three Hebrew words:

  • Ab, which means “father.”
  • Ben, which means “son.”
  • Ruach acadosch, which means “holy spirit.”

This that is a reference to the Holy Trinity.

Presto, an Italian word that means “quickly,” was used by conjurers to command invisible demons for hundreds of years (Adams).

Works Cited

Adams, Cecil. “What’s the origin of ‘abracadabra,’ ‘hocus-pocus.’ And ‘presto’?” The Straight Dope, 26 Mar 1999, https://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1313/whats-the-origin-of-abracadabra-hocus-pocus-and-presto/. Accessed 31 October 2019.

Harper, Douglas. “hocus-pocus | Origin and meaning of hocus-pocus by Online Etymology Dictionary.” Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/hocus-pocus. Accessed 31 October 2019.

“Hocus-pocus | Definition of Hocus-pocus by Merriam-Webster.” Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hocus-pocus.

“Hocus-pocus definition and meaning.” Collins English Dictionary, https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/hocus-pocus. Accessed 31 October 2019.

Martin, Gary. “‘Hocus-pocus’ meaning and origin.” The Phrase Finder, https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/hocus-pocus.html. Accessed 31 October 2019.


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