Hocus pocus is a generic term that may be derived from an ancient language and is currently used to refer 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.
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. 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. Whether he was the author of the book is unknown.
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.
In some Slavic languages, "pokus" means an "attempt" or an "experiment", as for example in Czech or Slovak language. The word is derived from the Protoslavic word "kusiti", which is itself derived from Gothic "kausajn" meaning "to try", "to attempt". This may indicate that the wording belongs to the alchemy kitchen and court of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor (1552 – 1612). Also, hocus may mean "to cheat" in Latin or a distorted form of the word hoc, "this". Combination of the two words may give a sense, especially both meanings together "this attempt/experiment" and "cheated attempt/experiment".
Some believe it originates from 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. 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.
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 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. In a similar way the phrase is in Scandinavia usually accompanied by filiokus, a corruption of the term filioque, 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. Additionally, the word for "stage trick" in Russian, fokus, is derived from hocus pocus.
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.
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
- "The Project Gutenberg eBook of Hocvs Pocvs Iunior (author unknown)". www.gutenberg.org.
- "Hocus Pocus, Jr". www.hocuspocusjr.com.
- Králik, Ľubor (2015). Stručný etymologický slovník slovenčiny. Veda.
- Compact Oxford English Dictionary. http://www.askoxford.com/concise_oed/hocuspocus
- Online Etymology Dictionary http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=hocus-pocus
- Random House Words@Random: The Mavens' Word of the Day; see Talk:Hocus Pocus (magic) for full quotation
- In de Kou, Godfried Bomans en Michel van der Plas over hun roomse jeugd en hoe het hun verging, Amsterdam, 1969
- Turner, Sharon (1807). The History Of The Anglo Saxons Vol II (2 ed.). London: Longman, Hurst, Rees & Orme. p. 17. Retrieved 23 February 2019.
- Martin, Gary. "'Hocus-pocus' - the meaning and origin of this phrase". Phrasefinder.
- Hocus Pocus or The Whole art of Legerdemain. From the Marion S. Carson Collection in the Rare Book and Special Collection Division at the Library of Congress
- Hocus Pocus Junior: the Anatomie of Legerdemain From the Harry Houdini Collection in the Rare Book and Special Collection Division at the Library of Congress