Lexical Investigations: Hokey

Hokey, Hokey-pokey, hocus pocus, lexical investigationsThe story of hokey shows how tangled the backstory of words can sometimes seem to be. Hokey first appeared after World War II as American slang for “overly sentimental” or “contrived. The term’s immediate predecessor seems to be hokum, a blunt American term for “nonsense,” coined earlier in the 20th century by combining hocus-pocus (or hokey-pokey) with bunkum, another word which also means “nonsense.”

Hocus-pocus itself is the oldest member of this word family, originating as early as the 17th century, and meaning “sleight of hand” or “trickery”—possibly derived from a rhyming formula used by jugglers and magicians. The other related word mentioned above, hokey-pokey, is a variant of hocus-pocus, and emerged in the mid-19th century as an adjective describing something cheap or fake, a meaning that can also be associated with “deception.”

There are other senses of hokey-pokey, but as a noun, for example, the 19th-century name for ice cream or shaved ice sold by street vendors; and the mid-20th-century  name of the popular “hokey-pokey” song and dance, in which “You put your right foot in, [and] you put your right foot out.” But both these senses seem unrelated to the adjectival hokey-pokey and hokey.

Relevant Quotations:
If you think this word story is a bit hokey, you can’t be faulted. There is often a lot of juggling and a bit of magic in the way words are formed and evolve. “A little hokey but basically honest.”
The New York Times Book Review, Vol 2 (1944)

“Part of its appeal is in its occasional moments of pathos; ‘hokey’ but obviously effective.”
—Current Biography Yearbook, Vol 25 (1949)

“Those which might have some depth are corny enough to be hokey, and almost hokey enough to be folky, since folky is already so hokey anyhow.”
—Richard Meltzer, The Aesthetics of Rock, 1987

Read our previous post about the word critical thinking.
A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.) Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.
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