You may recognize the phrase hocus pocus as the title of a popular Disney Halloween film, but it has a long history of use in magical circles. Hocus pocus is a phrase that refers to an illusion or a meaningless distraction that fools you in some way. But did you ever wonder where the phrase came from?
During mass, Christian priests would recite “hoc est corpus,” which means “this is the body,” when transforming bread into the body of Christ in the Middle Ages. Because no one spoke or understood Latin, this chant was garbled into “hocus pocus,” which we still use when performing magic tricks today.
The Origin of Hocus Pocus
The term hocus pocus first appeared in the 1600s. It was a name in its early usage.
Hocus Pocus was the pen name of William Vincent, who worked as the court magician to King James I of England in the 1620s. According to a report in the 1655 book called A Candle in the Dark, Vincent’s name may have derived from a mantra he chanted while performing tricks. To create a magical atmosphere and distract his captive audience, he liked to say Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo.
But how did he come up with the phrase? It’s difficult to say for sure, but some have speculated that the words have a Latin origin. Hocus pocus, for example, could have come from someone mishearing the phrase hoc est corpus meum, or This is my body, a sentence uttered during Catholic mass. (Source: Grunge)
The Evolution of the Phrase Hocus Pocus
So, if William Vincent coined the phrase as a name in the 1620s, how did it become a common phrase in modern English? The term first appeared in print in 1621 in Ben Jonson’s book Masque of Augures.
O Sir, all de better, vor an Antick-masque, the more absurd it be, and vrom de purpose, it be euer all de better.” If it comes from the nature of the thing, it is more art, because there is Art and there is Nature, as you will see. Hochos-pochos. Palabros, Fabros.Ben Jonson, Author, Masque of Augures
Later, in 1634, a magician published Hocus Pocus Junior, a book of magic tricks that helped popularize the term. Eventually, hocus pocus became a phrase to describe magic tricks, and a slightly different version of the phrase, hiccius doccius, was coined for jugglers. (Source: Grunge)
Was the Phrase “Hocus Pocus” Used in Harry Potter?
Hocus Pocus was one of three illogical spells by Harry Potter in 1992 to frighten off his Muggle cousin Dudley Dursley. He claimed they could set fire to a hedge.
Hocus pocus was also a derogatory term used by Muggles to refer to magic, attempting to portray wizards as mere magicians. Vernon Dursley stated in 1997, when worried that Harry Potter was planning to get the house,
You want us out of the way, and then you’re going to do a bit of hocus pocus before we know it.Excerpt from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Even wizards used the term occasionally, though it was always as a jab. Severus Snape said to Quirinus Quirrell about his protection of the Philosopher’s Stone,
—your little bit of hocus-pocus. I’m waiting.Excerpt from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Image from Grunge