December 9, 2022

The Origin Of The Term Hocus Pocus

You might know “hocus pocus” as the name of a famous Disney Halloween film, but this phrase actually has a pretty long history of being used in all sorts of magical circles. The phrase hocus pocus is a noun referring to an “illusion or a meaningless distraction that tricks you in some way,” according to Vocabulary.com. For instance, if a magician waves his hand distractingly over a deck of cards while he’s supposed to be making the impossible happen, that’s hocus pocus, since it draws your gaze and attention and allows him to swap out a card while you’re distracted.

As you can imagine, hocus pocus doesn’t always have the most positive connotations. But at the very least, it’s a fun word to say, and that’s why you might hear little kids chanting it as they pretend to stir mysterious potions in a cauldron around Halloween time. But where did the phrase actually come from? Who came up with the weird phrase “hocus pocus?”

A court magician named Hocus Pocus

The phrase “hocus pocus” first popped up in the 1600s. In its earliest usage, it was actually a name. According to Wordorigins.org, Hocus Pocus was the pseudonym of a man named William Vincent, who in the 1620s was serving as the court magician to King James I of England. According to a report from a 1655 book called “A Candle in the Dark,” Vincent’s name may have come from a mantra that he chanted while performing tricks. He liked to say “Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo” to cultivate a magical atmosphere and distract his captive audience.

But where did he come up with the term? It’s hard to say for sure, though some people have speculated that there’s a Latin basis behind the words, per Word Foolery. Hocus pocus, for example, could have come from someone who misheard the phrase “hoc est corpus meum,” or “This is my body,” a sentence uttered during Catholic mass (via Ginger Software). And according to Wordorigins.org, “vade celeriter jubeo” means “I command you go quickly.”

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How the phrase evolved

So if William Vincent originated the phrase as a name in the 1620s, how did it come to be a common term in our standard English? A version of the term first appeared in writing in 1621 in the book “Masque of Augures,” in which the author Ben Jonson wrote (via Wordorigins.org), “O Sir, all de better, vor an Antick-masque, de more absurd it be, and vrom de purpose, it be euer all de better. If it goe from de nature of de ting, it is de more art, for dere is Art, and dere is Nature, you shall see. Hochos-pochos. Fabros Palabros.”

Later, in 1634, a magician published a book of magic tricks called “Hocus Pocus Junior,” which helped to spread the term. In time, “hocus pocus” was being used as a noun to describe magic tricks, and a slightly different version of the phrase, “hiccius doccius,” was eventually created for jugglers (via Oxford Reference).