“Hocus-pocus” in today’s world describes talk that is meaningless or to words deliberately made deceptive and tricky so that you don’t see what’s actually happening. It was and still is also used that way by stage magicians, the same as “abracadabra” and “shazam,” when bringing about some kind of change.
The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the word arose in the early 1600s, from hax pax max Deus adimax, a pseudo-Latin phrase used as a magic formula by conjurors.
Jugglers and street entertainers often “borrowed” other common Latin phrases to use on audiences who were generally ignorant of the language. In the 1670s the phrase hiccus doctius was a phrase used by jugglers and sometimes was used as another word for juggler, just like hocus-pocus. Hiccus doctius is likely to have been a twist on hicce es doctus, “here is the learned man” in Latin.
The earliest known English-language work on magic, or what was then known as legerdemain (sleight of hand), was published anonymously in 1635 under the title Hocus Pocus Junior: The Anatomie of Legerdemain. Further research suggests that “Hocus Pocus” was the stage name of a well known magician of the era.
One theory suggests that hocus-pocus originates from a corruption or parody of the Catholic liturgy of the Eucharist, which contains the phrase, Hoc est enim corpus meum, meaning, “This is my body.” This explanation goes back to speculations by the Anglican prelate John Tillotson, who wrote in 1694: “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.”
Another suggestion from Sharon Turner in The History of the Anglo-Saxons, the words were believed to be derived from Ochus Bochus, a magician and demon of the North.
“Hocus” is thought to be the source for the verb “hoax.” That would certainly make sense, but “hoax” doesn’t appear until 1796 and there is no direct evidence to link the two words.
The exotic-sounding phrases were designed to fool some of the audience into believing that mysterious forces were being conjured up. Of course, now as then, these charm or incantation words and phrases provide that essential element required for all conjuring tricks: distraction.
In 1656 Ady was wise to the techniques that are still used by conjurers to baffle us today. He says, “…a Charm, or Inchantation was only a composure of words to delude people, who thought that words spoken in a strange manner had vertue and efficacy in them.”
Jugglers and magicians led a dangerous life in those early days. If they could be dismissed as performing sleight of hand tricks then they were just stage entertainers. If they were thought to be using actual magic powers they were clearly witches and had a grim, and short, future.
So what do you do? You want to fool people, but you don’t want to die at the stake. That would be a juggling act indeed. The quandary must have sometimes led to the juggler hurrying backstage, gasping, “I gotta get the hell out of Dodge!”