Hocus Pocus Etymology

I was listening to Penn Jillette’s radio show on podcast today and his guests were the authors of a book about Harry Houdini. In their conversation about how synonymous the name Houdini had become with escaping they mention that the ubiquitous phrase ‘hocus pocus’ actually came from the name of a famous 17[sup]th[/sup] century magician.

I looked this up when I arrived at work (dedicated employee that I am), and while I can find one reference to a 17[sup]th[/sup] century magician by that name, everything seems to indicate that the phrase was already considered to be a general magical one at the time. So which came first? Was there actually a magician named Hocus Pocus? And did his name become synonymous with magic, or was it the other way around?

Not very likely:[

](HOCUS-POCUS Definition & Usage Examples | Dictionary.com)ETA: Calling ianzin!

The master speaks:

Hmmm, I had heard of the ‘hoc est enim corpus meum’ origin, but was under the impression that it was generaly considered to be false. Though I am not sure where I got that idea. I hadn’t heard of its connection to the conjurer at all, so thanks for the link. But I am still unlcear as to whether the conjurer used the phrase because it was already common, or if it became common because of him. Both cases seem plausilbe in regards to the time line since the conjurer was from the early 17[sup]th[/sup] centruy and, according to jjimm’s link, the phrase came from the same time period.

From word-detective.com:

Here’s the relevant part of the OED entry:

[Appears early in 17th c., as the appellation of a juggler (and, apparently, as the assumed name of a particular conjuror) derived from the sham Latin formula employed by him: see below, and cf. Grimm, Hokuspokus.
The notion that hocus pocus was a parody of the Latin words used in the Eucharist, rests merely on a conjecture thrown out by Tillotson: see below.

1655 ADY Candle in Dark 29, 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 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 currantly without discovery. a1694 TILLOTSON Serm. xxvi. (1742) II. 237 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.]

More from the OED:

It would seem that the connection to a performer who used it as both a name and a chant is pretty solid, while the question of whether this magician derived his pseudo-Latin from the Latin spoken during the Catholic Eucharist was speculation on the part a 17th century writer.

…which didn’t really mean anything but effectively distracted his audience’s attention from his sleight of hand.

As a magician, I can say it isn’t that simple. Patter is psychological misdirection and is usually used to misdirect the audience’s beliefs, not their sight. Any decent sleight of hand can be performed under scrutiny and I know a few excellent sleight of hand magicians who basically perform silently. Hocus Pocus gives the audience something to believe in (magical incantations) instead of leaving them to draw their own conclusions (it’s a trick). Magic, like all performance, is really a sort of covenant between the performer and the audience. In the case of magic, the audience wants to believe that magic is real. The magician’s job is to make that possible for them.

Wow, daff, you’re sounding a little like Jonathan Townsend there. . .