Hocus Pocus (magic)

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Hocus Pocus or hocus-pocus is a generic term that may be derived from an ancient language and is currently used by magicians, usually the magic words spoken when bringing about some sort of change. It was once a common term for a magician, juggler, or other similar entertainer.


The earliest known English language work on magic, or what was then known as "legerdemain", was published anonymously in 1635 under the title Hocus Pocus Junior: The Anatomie of Legerdemain.[1] Further research suggests that "Hocus Pocus" was the stage name of a well known magician of the era. This may be William Vincent, who is recorded as having been granted a license to perform magic in England in 1619.[2] Whether he was the author of the book is unknown.

Conjectured origins[edit]

The origins of the term remain obscure. The most popular conjecture is that it is a garbled Latin religious phrase or some form of ‘dog’ Latin. Some have associated it with similar-sounding fictional, mythical, or legendary names. Others dismiss it as merely a combination of nonsense words.

‘Dog’ Latin[edit]

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the term originates from hax pax max Deus adimax, a pseudo-Latin phrase used as a magic formula by conjurors.[3]

Some believe it originates from a corruption or parody of the Roman Catholic liturgy of the Eucharist, which contains the phrase “Hoc est corpus meum”, meaning This is my body.[4] This explanation goes back to speculations by the Anglican prelate John Tillotson, who wrote in 1694:

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.[5]

This claim is substantiated by the fact that in the Netherlands, the words Hocus pocus are usually accompanied by the additional words pilatus pas, and this is said to be based on a post-Reformation parody of the traditional Catholic ritual of transubstantiation during mass, being a Dutch corruption of the Latin words "Hoc est corpus", meaning this is (my) body, and the credo "sub Pontio Pilato passus et sepultus est", meaning under Pontius Pilate he suffered and was buried.[6] In a similar way the phrase is in Scandinavia usually accompanied by filiokus, a corruption of the term filioque, from some versions of the Nicene Creed, meaning “and from the Son” (variant spelling ‘filipokus’ is common in Russia, an Orthodox Catholic nation, and certain other post-Soviet states; also the word for stage trick itself in Russian, fokus, is derived from hocus pocus).

Magician’s name[edit]

Others believe that it is an appeal to the Norse folklore magician Ochus Bochus:

Hocus Pocus: Words of pseudomagical import. According to Sharon Turner in The History of the Anglo-Saxons (4 vols., 1799-1805), they were believed to be derived from Ochus Bochus, a magician and demon of the north.[7][8]

Nonsense word[edit]

Or it may simply be imitation Latin with no meaning, made up to impress people:

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 he 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, because when the eye and the ear of the beholder are both earnestly busied, the Trick is not so easily discovered, nor the Imposture discerned.

Thomas Ady, A Candle in the Dark, 1656[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Hocus Pocus Junior: The Anatomie of Legerdemain"
  2. ^ The Web Site About the First Illustrated Book in the English Language Devoted Entirely to the Subject of Magic
  3. ^ Compact Oxford English Dictionary. [1] http://www.askoxford.com/concise_oed/hocuspocus
  4. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary [2] http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=hocus-pocus
  5. ^ Random House Words@Random: The Mavens' Word of the Day [3] http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=19991007; see Talk:Hocus Pocus (magic) for full quotation
  6. ^ In de Kou, Godfried Bomans en Michel van der Plas over hun roomse jeugd en hoe het hun verging, Amsterdam, 1969
  7. ^ Bane, Theresa (2012). Encyclopedia of Demons in World Religions and Cultures. McFarland. p. 240. ISBN 978-0786488940. Retrieved 2014-12-24. 
  8. ^ Answers.com [4] http://www.answers.com/topic/hocus-pocus
  9. ^ The Phrase Finder. [5] http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/hocus-pocus.html

External Resources[edit]