Dusty Phrases

Hi! Welcome to “Dusty Phrases.” You will find below an ancient phrase in one language or another, along with its English translation. You may also find the power to inspire your friends or provoke dread among your enemies.

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This ancient phrase lacks a precise meaning, though it usually refers to the actions of a magician or someone playing tricks. You often hear the term used as a perjorative.

“Oh, that’s all just a bunch of hocus-pocus.”

The term also lacks a precise point of origin, though it dates back at least as far as the 17th century. However, as we have records of speculation about the phrase’s origin, from the fifteenth century, it might be quite a bit older. Was it a phrase intended originally to mock the Catholic liturgy of the Eucharist? Does it refer to a Norse demon?

More from wiki:


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. This may be William Vincent, who is recorded as having been granted a license to perform magic in England in 1619. Whether he was the author of the book is unknown.

Conjectured origins

The origins of the term remain obscure. The most popular conjecture is that it is a garbled Latin religious phrase or some form of ‘dog’ Latin. Some have associated it with similar-sounding fictional, mythical, or legendary names. Others suggest it is merely a combination of nonsense words.

Latin and pseudo-Latin origins

Painting titled “Hoc est corpus”, for a set of tapestries celebrating the Eucharist, by Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1625

One theory is that the term is a corruption of hax pax max Deus adimax, a pseudo-Latin phrase used in the early 17th century as a magical formula by conjurors.

Another theory is that it is 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 at least as far back as a 1694 speculation by the Anglican prelate John Tillotson:

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.

This theory is supported by the fact that in the Netherlands, the words Hocus pocus are usually accompanied by the additional words pilatus pas, and this is said to be based on a post-Reformation parody of the traditional Catholic rite of transubstantiation during Mass, being a Dutch corruption of the Latin words “Hoc est corpus meum” and the credo, which reads in part, “sub Pontio Pilato passus et sepultus est“, meaning under Pontius Pilate he suffered and was buried. In a similar way the phrase is in Scandinavia usually accompanied by filiokus, a corruption of the term filioque, from the Latin version of the Nicene Creed, meaning “and from the Son”. The variant spelling filipokus is common in Russia, a predominantly Eastern Orthodox nation, as well as certain other post-Soviet states. Additionally, the word for “stage trick” in Russianfokus, is derived from hocus pocus.

Magician’s name

Others believe that it is an appeal to the folkloric Norse magician Ochus Bochus:

It is possible that we here see the origin of hocus pocus, and Old Nick.

According to Sharon Turner in The History of the Anglo-Saxons, they were believed to be derived from Ochus Bochus, a magician and demon of the north.

Nonsense word

As an alternative to other theories, it may simply be pseudo-Latin with no meaning, made up to impress people:

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 he 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 currently without discovery, because when the eye and the ear of the beholder are both earnestly busied, the Trick is not so easily discovered, nor the Imposture discerned.

— Thomas AdyA Candle in the Dark, 1656

2 thoughts on “Dusty Phrases

    1. You’re welcome! I am kind of drawn to words and phrases like this, which are used in every day language, but have an original meaning lost to the present. I sometimes wonder if we should perhaps be more careful with the words we use.