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Hocus-pocus is a reference to the actions of magicians, often as the stereotypical magic words spoken when bringing about some sort of change. It was once a common term for a magician, juggler, or other similar entertainers. In extended usage, the term is often used (pejoratively) to describe irrational human activities that appear to depend on magic. Examples are given below.[1]

Examples of the extended use of the term hocus-pocus[edit]

Those relating to divination or other activity by one practitioner working in isolation: Haruspication (divination by inspection of entrails), and necromancy.

Those relating to a magical connection between two or more people: Subconscious direction, cross-dreaming, extrasensory perception, split subjectivity, telepathy, clairvoyance, channelling, psychic transcription, ‘faculty X’, ‘mind energy’.[1]


The earliest known English-language work on magic, or what was then known as legerdemain (sleight of hand), was published anonymously in 1635 under the title Hocus Pocus Junior: The Anatomie of Legerdemain.[2] 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.[3] 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 suggest it is merely a combination of nonsense words.

Latin and pseudo-Latin origins[edit]

Painting titled "Hoc est corpus", for a set of tapestries celebrating the Eucharist, by Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1625

One theory is that the term is a corruption of hax pax max Deus adimax, a pseudo-Latin phrase used in the early 17th century as a magical formula by conjurors.[4]

Another theory is that it is a corruption or parody of the Catholic liturgy of the Eucharist, which contains the phrase "Hoc est enim corpus meum", meaning This is my body.[5] This explanation goes at least as far back as a 1694 speculation by the Anglican prelate John Tillotson:

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.[6][7]

This theory is supported 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 rite of transubstantiation during Mass, being a Dutch corruption of the Latin words "Hoc est corpus meum" and the credo, which reads in part, "sub Pontio Pilato passus et sepultus est", meaning under Pontius Pilate he suffered and was buried.[8] In a similar way the phrase is in Scandinavia usually accompanied by filiokus, a corruption of the term filioque,[citation needed] from the Latin version of the Nicene Creed, meaning “and from the Son”. The variant spelling filipokus is common in Russia, a predominantly Eastern Orthodox nation, as well as certain other post-Soviet states.[citation needed] Additionally, the word for "stage trick" in Russian, fokus, is derived from hocus pocus.[9]

Magician's name[edit]

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

It is possible that we here see the origin of hocus pocus, and Old Nick.

According to Sharon Turner in The History of the Anglo-Saxons, they were believed to be derived from Ochus Bochus, a magician and demon of the north.[10]

Nonsense word[edit]

As an alternative to other theories, it may simply be pseudo-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[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "W. B. Yeats and "A Vision": Automatic Script". www.yeatsvision.com. Retrieved 2020-11-21.
  2. ^ "The Project Gutenberg eBook of Hocvs Pocvs Iunior (author unknown)". www.gutenberg.org.
  3. ^ "Hocus Pocus, Jr". www.hocuspocusjr.com.
  4. ^ The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 2nd ed, 2005, ISBN 9780191727047 s.v.
  5. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary [1] http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=hocus-pocus
  6. ^ Oxford English Dictionary "hocus-pocus"
  7. ^ MacIsaac, Margaret. "abracadabra; hocus pocus". PenguinRandomhouse.com. Archived from the original on 5 September 2008.
  8. ^ In de Kou, Godfried Bomans en Michel van der Plas over hun roomse jeugd en hoe het hun verging, Amsterdam, 1969
  9. ^ Etymological dictionary of the Russian language
  10. ^ Turner, Sharon (1807). The History Of The Anglo Saxons Vol II (2 ed.). London: Longman, Hurst, Rees & Orme. p. 17. Retrieved 23 February 2019.
  11. ^ Martin, Gary. "'Hocus-pocus' – the meaning and origin of this phrase". Phrasefinder.

External resources[edit]