When my husband can’t put his chair-side whisky glass on the old familiar mat, he gets quite agitated. It seems like Asperger’s disorder. My own irritation is more rationally provoked, I hope. A recent irritant was the foolish philology that I came across in the Daily Mail: ‘Politicians and the Catholic Church have warned that singing The Hokey Cokey could land you in prison.’
The objection is to Rangers supporters offending Catholics by chanting to the tune at football matches. What annoyed me was the baseless claim that the song ‘originated from Puritans in this country before being taken to America by 18th-century religious refugees’, as the Mail said. ‘The Catholic Church claims the title derives from hocus-pocus, ridiculing the words used by priests in the Eucharist, hoc est enim corpus meum’. By ‘the Catholic Church’, it emerged, was meant Peter Kearney, a spokesman for the Cardinal Archbishop of St Andrews. Someone should buy him a good dictionary. The song and accompanying dance became popular in the 1940s. It was also known as Cokey Cokey or Hokey Pokey. A reference from 1873 also identifies the hokee-pokee as a dance, but that word was also used for ice-cream sold by Italian vendors. The ice-cream word may have its own uncertain origin, but let us suppose the form hokey-cokey shares the origins of hocus-pocus.
Hocus pocus from its first known occurrence in 1624 meant ‘trickery’, or was used as the name of a juggler. It was also a conjuror’s formula, like abracadabra. Not until some time before 1694 was the following conjecture made, in a sermon by 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.’