Thursday, August 5, 2010

Etymology of Hokey Pokey

While most English speakers are familiar with the term hokey pokey as the popular children’s song and dance that first appeared during the middle of the 20th century. However, hokey pokey has been present in our lexicon for well over a century as the name of cheap type of fake ice cream. Hokey pokey itself the anglicized version of the mock Latin hocus-pocus that was used by stage performers like jugglers and magicians for some centuries.

The nonsense term hocus-pocus is derived from the Medieval Latin root of joke, jocus, meaning a jest or a verbal game. In time, jocus was developed into joke, jocular and juggler, and it was jugglers that appear to have first coined the term hocus-pocus in order to deflect the attention of the audience while they performed a sleight of hand. Although there were a few variations, the most common version of this bit of verbal stagecraft appears to have been:

Hocus-pokus, toutus talontus, vade celerita jubes.”

Hocus was shortened to hoax during the 1790s to describe any type of trick that was designed to convince something false or preposterous was real. In about 1847, vendors began selling ice cream from small displays that soon became known as hokey pokey carts. Customers referred to the ice cream as hokey pokey due to the absurdly small servings that the vendors would sell to local children. According to one account, the hokey pokey man would sell kids a few different flavors of ice cream at roughly a tablespoon per penny on small pieces of newsprint. When the Great Depression developed during the 1930s, vendors began selling a face version of the treat consisting of shaved ice flavored with syrup.

Today, hokey pokey is a specific flavor of ice cream that is primarily confined to New Zealand and Scotland. Modern hokey pokey ice cream consists of vanilla ice cream that has been flavored with chunks of solid or sponge toffee. The Hokey Pokey (or Hokey Cokey) song appears to have originated in the 1940s as a 20th century spin on traditional Scottish participative dances. Although the modern version of the song does not directly refer to its roots, the song was allegedly inspired by a hokey pokey man who sang to customers in a sing-song voice:

"Hokey pokey penny a lump. Have a lick make you jump."

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