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The meaning and origin of the expression: Hokey Cokey

Hokey Cokey

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Hokey Cokey'?

The 'Hokey Cokey' is a dance, usually a quite exuberant participation dance, where a group of dancers follow a set routine of actions while singing along to the Hokey Cokey tune.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Hokey Cokey'?

Before we get started on the origins of this expression I ought to mention that the dance is known by various other names in different countries:

In the USA, Canada and Australia the dance is called the Hokey Pokey.

New Zealand doesn't follow Australia's lead because Hokey Pokee is known there as a type of honeycomb toffee ice cream, and they use Hokey Tokey.

In Denmark the dance is called the Boogie Woogie.

That being said there are numerous printed examples from one country that use the version of the phrase used elsewhere. You might find the dance being called Hokey Cokey, Hokey Pokey, Hokey Tokey, or even by a variety of spellings, Hoky Coky, Hokee Cokee, Cokey Cokey and so on. Also, the words of the song and the actions of the dancers varies from place to place.

So, that's all a but confusing. It appears that the dance itself, the name of the dance and the lyrics all originated in different places. The choice of name is perplexing but fortunately there is more clarity to be found when looking at where the dance came from.

As we shall see, it's pretty certain that the dance originated in the UK so I'll start with the British version of the lyrics and movements and go from there.

The Dance

The meaning and origin of the phrase 'Hokey Cokey'.The Hokey-Cokey is a sort of line dance in which the dancers call out the dance moves, which are the lyrics of the song, themselves. The current version of the used in the UK goes something like this:

- Dancers form a line or circle and perform actions in time with the music, following the actions given in the lyrics - right foot in, out, shake it all about etc.
- Dancers spin around and clap hands.
- Dancers join hands, group together then move back three times.

The first song and dance that can be said to be a form of the Hokey Cokey was called the Hinkumbooby and was published in Robert Chambers' song collection Popular Rhymes of Scotland, 1858. Here's how to do it:

- The party form a circle, taking hold of each other's hands. One sing's, and the rest join.
- While doing so, they move a little sideways, and back again, beating the time (which is slow) with their feet. As soon as the line is concluded, each claps his hand and wheels grotesquely round.
- Then they sing, throwing their right hand into the circle and the left out - Eight hands in, and left hands out, still beating the time then add as before, while wheeling round, with a clap of the hands.
Moving sideways as before, hand in hand.
Wheeling round as before, with a clap of the hand.

Anyone who has danced the modern version of the Hokey Cokey will recognise the close similarity to the Hinkumbooby and there's little doubt that's where the Hokey Cokey originated.

The Lyrics

The Hinkumbooby

Fal de ral la, fal de ral la
Hinkumbooby, round about.
Right hands in, and left hands out,
Hinkumbooby, round about;
Fal de ral la, fal de ral la

and so on...

The Hokey Cokey

You put your left arm in,
Your left arm out:
In, out, in, out.
Shake it all about.
You do the hokey cokey,
And you turn around.
Rah, rah, rah!

and so on...

Again, the modern lyrics and the Hinkumbooby lyrics match too closely for the latter not to be derived from the former.

Numerous other later dances with similar odd lyrics and actions which match both of the above but Hinkumbooby was the first.

The lyrics became a fairly standardised in the 1940s when recorded songs were issued and the dance became popular in both the UK and the USA.

Although the lyrics we now use were finalised then (as much as you can say that for a song with so many variants) the dance moves and lyrics began far earlier.

The Name Hokey Cokey

Why Hokey Cokey was chosen as the name isn't at all clear, although it may well have been influenced by the similar-sounding phrase Hokey Pokey or, more convincingly, the Hoochie-coochie, which was also a dance in 19th century USA. After all, the reduplicated phrases 'hokey-pokey', 'hokey-cokey' and even 'hocus-pocus' have been used interchangeably for decades.

The first example I can find of the expression is from the US newspaper the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, September 1939:

Our Smart Set to Dance Hoky-Coky at Benefit.

After the teams give exhibitions of the "Hoky-Coky"... the "Boomps-a-Daisy"... the Jitterbug... guests will be asked to join in.

The earliest example I can find from the UK dates from 1943. It's clear from the newspaper entries that the dance was well-known by the early 1940s. Who the author of the current version of the song was hardly matters, although it seems to matter to them as it has been the cause of several court cases over copyright.

As far as I can say from the evidence now available is that the name of the dance 'Hokey Cokey' was coined in the USA in the 1930s, possibly influenced by the US dance the Hoochie-coochie, with the dance moves and lyrics ultimately derived from a Scottish country dance.

If you want to know more about the link between Hokey Cokey and the other phrases mentioned above you might like to have a look at the even more Byzantine origins of Hokey Pokey.

See other reduplicated phrases.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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