Sunday, December 14, 2008

Anti-Catholic Cultural Remnants: "Hocus Pocus"

By Dave Armstrong (12-14-08)

The Wikipedia entry, "Hocus Pocus (magic)" elaborates on its anti-Catholic background:
Some believe it originates from a parody of the Roman Catholic liturgy of the eucharist, which contains the phrase "Hoc est enim corpus meum". 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.
Note that Tillotson was neither Catholic; nor overly fond of Catholicism; in fact he was an anti-Catholic (to offset any charge of bias in his speculation). Some contend, however, that his remark is to be dismissed as evidence by the same token. For example:
It's fairly common knowledge that Tillotson was more interested in casting doubt on the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation by likening it to a magician's trick than he was in providing an accurate etymology with his anti-Catholic sermon so it may be taken with a good-sized grain of salt.

Wikipedia cites, in turn, the Online Etymology Dictionary ("hocus-pocus"):

hocus-pocus Look up hocus-pocus at

1624, Hocas Pocas, common name of a magician or juggler, a sham-Latin invocation used in tricks, probably based on a perversion of the sacramental blessing from the Mass, Hoc est corpus meum "This is my body." The first to make this speculation on its origin apparently was Eng. prelate John Tillotson (1630-1694).
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
Copyright © 2006, concurs:
ho·cus-po·cus (hō'kəs-pō'kəs)

1. Nonsense words or phrases used as a formula by quack conjurers.
2. A trick performed by a magician or juggler; sleight-of-hand.
3. Foolishness or empty pretense used especially to disguise deception or chicanery.

tr.v. ho·cus-po·cused or ho·cus-po·cussed, ho·cus-po·cus·ing or ho·cus-po·cus·sing, ho·cus-po·cus·es or ho·cus-po·cus·ses
To play tricks on; deceive.

[Possibly from an alteration of Latin hoc est corpus (meum), this is (my) body (words used in the Eucharist at the time of transubstantiation).] is more certain about the etymology of hocus pocus.

In the extensive fascinating web page, "Phrase and word origins," we find this:
Origin of the word "Hoax" (Etymology)

The word hoax first came into popular use sometime in the middle to late eighteenth century. It is thought to have been a contraction of the word hocus from the conjuror's term hocus pocus. The term hocus pocus itself first appeared in the early seventeenth century. It might have derived from the assumed name of a conjuror in the time of King James who called himself 'The Kings Majesties most excellent Hocus Pocus' because with the performance of every trick he used to call out the nonsense phrase, "Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo" (later magicians were known to use the phrase "Hax pax max deus adimax"). This phrase was itself probably an imitation (or mockery) of the phrase used by priests of the Church of Rome when they performed the act of transubstantiation, "hoc est corpus".

(extract from the "Museum of Hoaxes" site)
In a fun site called Everything You Know About English is Wrong, an argument is made by Bill Brohaugh that the etymology of hocus pocus from the Mass is incorrect. An intelligent counter-argument was levied by Joshua Valle:
I might agree that your conclusion may be the best guess that one can make but ultimately it seems to be just that, a guess. We don’t know for example that the jugglers and magicians didn’t replicate the nonsense syllables they heard in the incantation at mass. Tillotson’s apparent lack of methodology does not make his conclusion false, it just does not lend any evidence to it. You can cite Tillotson as the source of a folk-etymology, but you should not use him for evidence against “hoc est corpus” as the most basic source for “hocus pocus.” I don’t deal with English etymology, but it seems to me what you need to do is to give some evidence for an alternative explanation which traces the the use of these words in such a way that rules out an origin in the mass. To attribute them to non-sense syllables which “stuck” somehow, begs the question of why they stuck.
Brohaugh in turn defends his original position, with only slight modification. Fascinating reading!

Hensleigh Wedgwood and John Christopher Atkinson, in their Dictionary of English Etymology (1872; p. 346), opine about hocus pocus:
It has been supposed that they are a jeer at the sacramental words hoc est corpus, but it is most improbable that the juggler (whose interest it is to please everybody) should have made his performances the vehicle of a flagrant outrage on Catholic feeling.
Of course, this is a classic example of fallacious thinking, because they wrongly assume that persons using the phrase would themselves be aware of its etymological origin of 200-300 years earlier. The vast majority of us are usually unaware of the origins of words, which past histories remain a fact (whatever they are) regardless of knowledge about them.

Usually, just the first generation of users of a new phrase or colloquial meaning for a word or phrase, understand where it came from, then in the second and third generations this awareness is lost, as it becomes common usage. Consultation of any etymological source will repeatedly and unarguably bring this point home to all but English majors and those (e.g., crossword puzzle or Scrabble-loving types) who pursue a particular hobby of learning about words and their origins.

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