Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 14, 2013

Hocus Pocus

The late poet, translator and critic, John Ciardi once hosted a program on National Public Radio, “On Words.” The subject was etymology, the origin of words. In each brief audio program, Ciardi would explore the origin of a word or phrase. Sometimes they were unusual words, sometimes very common ones. Each fascinating program revealed that the word originated from an unusual or bizarre and always captivating source one wouldn’t expect. This may not sound like the components of gripping entertainment, but the combination of Ciardi’s gravelly baritone, his deep knowledge of his subject and his acerbic humor made these precious radio moments utterly compelling. I can scarcely believe that it’s been more than a quarter century since he did those broadcasts. I miss that guy.

One message with which Ciardi repeatedly admonished us was that one should not assume it’s possible to just “figure out” the origin of a word or phrase based on its apparent resemblance to similar-sounding or -looking words. He cautioned us that language is an elusive, always-changing medium and not subject to any rule, whether of logic or any other discipline. Etymology requires long, painstaking research. He always took a storytelling approach in his programs that demonstrated just how difficult it is to determine word origins.

Mr. Ciardi’s admonition comes to mind because the subject of the Christian eucharist came up in casual conversation with The Counselor this week, specifically the Latin text of Jesus’ words to his disciples, hoc est corpus meam: “This is my body.” I remarked on what I assumed was something familiar to my highly educated partner, the fact that a corruption of a phrase from that Latin passage, hoc est corpus, became a kind of linguistic in-joke for psuedo-serious prestidigitization of all kinds in the phrase, “hocus pocus.

“Are you certain of that?” she asked, in an honest, straightforward way that I found particularly irritating, in that it questioned something I absolutely knew to be fact. After all, she does not — as do I — have in her curriculum vita two years of hard tutelage under the iron hand of Mabel Corwin in Latin I and II (always use Roman numerals when referring to courses in Latin!). Granted, she has more college degrees than I, including some serious study of Middle English at an institution that — like my school of graduate study — stands among the foremost in both scholarship and Big 10 football. But, really, to be called out on something that I know to be a fact ….

This was, after all, in what’s called in the vernacular, “in my wheelhouse.” This was my turf, and I had gleaned this recondite bit of etymology from the very wellspring of etymological wisdom, during my graduate year studying the origins of the English language. Not only had this bit of word-origin legerdemain been conveyed to me directly from one of the company of scholars who knew, personally, some of the compilers of that ultimate resource of the English language’s origins, the Oxford English Dictionary, but the very soul of that publication resided just a few steps from where I matriculated, in the form of thousands of handwritten citation cards, bequeathed to my current university by the compilers of the OED for their own prosecution of the Middle English Dictionary. In other words, I had it from the source.

Well, I had near at hand the resources to refute her blithe dismissal of my thesis. I strode not without some arrogance to the shelf in the living room, pulled out the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary and its handy magnifying glass (honestly, I didn’t used to need that), brought it to the table and leafed to “hocus pocus,” directing a look to my brilliant but misled companion that implied, “My dear, I honor and respect your excellent mind, but you are unwise to question me on matters etymological.” She, I must admit, waited with a look of bemused toleration. Dang. There’s nothing much worse than being regarded with bemused toleration by an extremely intelligent, highly educated woman.

IMG_0186 OED - Hocus Pocus

There, my friends, I read these daunting lines: “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.”

What? Are you kidding me?

The OED does document a trend or fad of having a fictional or dramatic character in various works from the 17th Century, appearing variously as a joker, juggler or snake oil salesmen, named “Hocus Pocus.” There is, however, according to the most authoritative historical record of our language, other than that ungrounded assertion of a Reverend Tillotson in 1640, no indication that the phrase “hocus pocus” is any sort of distortion or parody of the text of the Latin mass. Whether the Reverend had some textual evidence now lost, or made it up out of whole sackcloth, we can’t know.


Before I looked up from peering through the magnifying glass, reading those words of doom, I composed myself and considered my options.  What would I say? How could I spin this to my advantage? How could I retrieve at least some small victory from this stinging defeat? I thought of the betrayal, the careless, inaccurate attestation of derivation from someone who … and then it came to me. John Ciardi, himself, would arise, decades after his demise, and salvage my battered psyche.

I explained to her that what I had found shows the danger of amateur linguists thinking they’ve discovered an etymological linkage. “To quote Mr. Ciardi, my dear, ‘etymology is the work of serious scholars’.”

While this sally did nothing to support my now-disproved belief about the origin of “hocus pocus,” it served its purpose and deflected our conversation into remembrances of Ciardi and even led me to plug in my iPod with a recording of Ciardi reading his own translation of Dante’s Inferno.

Hocus Pocus, indeed.

You can find John Ciardi’s works in print in your library, online and via booksellers. You can also find recordings, although I have lost the link to the downloadable recording of Dante. Please let me know if you find it. 

Episodes of his NPR “On Words” are purportedly available at, but I find them very difficult to download. Here is one alternative:

© Brad Nixon 2013, 2016



  1. This is typical of the world we live in Brad. We all have or will eventually face disappointment. It is disheartening I know, but good to
    have faced this setback so early in your life.


    • Thanks, Dad. I’m carrying on. I long ago accepted the fact that The Counselor was just one of a long list of people smarter than I am.


  2. I knew that…but only because I have a Ciardi-type figure to listen to (or rather, to read). His take on Hocus Pocus is here:

    and he has a weekly mailing which is well worth the read.


    • Nick, thanks very much for pointing us to Mr. Quinion. His excellent article about hocus pocus proves how thoroughly Mr. Ciardi was correct: his piece is a thoroughly researched bit of scholarship that puts my small excavation into the OED in the shade. Great stuff. I encourage everyone who’s interested in a fuller explanation to follow the link you provided.


Leave a Comment. I enjoy hearing from readers.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: