What's the meaning of the phrase 'Hokey-pokey'?

The term ‘hokey-pokey’ originated as the name for deception or underhand dealing.

More recently it has been used as the name of ice cream, originally cheap, street-sold ice cream and, in New Zealand, specifically ice cream with added toffee honeycomb.

In various parts of the English-speaking world the Hokey Pokey is the name of the dance known to the British as the Hokey Cokey.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Hokey-pokey'?

This is one of the trickiest phrases I’ve yet researched – because:

Online searches are difficult as there are several spellings – ‘hokey-pokey’, ‘hoky-poky’, ‘hokee-pokee’ – all with and without hyphens.

There are several meanings and it isn’t at all clear which came first or even if they are connected with each other.

The US expressions ‘by hokey/hokie’ and ‘by the hokey/hokie’ confuse the issue as they might seem to be related, but they aren’t.

There are other similar expressions, ‘hokey-cokey’, ‘okey-dokey’ and ‘hocus-pocus‘ and over the years these have all become muddled.

So, let’s get to it.

Let’s start by getting the US words hokey/hokie out of the way. Hokey is a 20th century variant of hokum, which is itself a 20th century amalgamation of hocus-pocus and bunkum. As hokey-pokey is an earlier expression it can’t be derived from hokey.

What is highly likely is that ‘hokey-pokey’ derived in 19th century Britain as a direct alternative to the earlier expression ‘hocus-pocus‘.

Why is that? Well, with most reduplicated phrases at least one of the words means something and the second word is either a rhyming or alliterative version of it. It’s sure that the phrase originated in 19th century Britain but neither ‘hokey’ or ‘pokey’ were words there in the 1800s. ‘Hocus-pocus‘ had been part of the language since the early 1600s and people would be well familiar with it. Given an existing well-used similar-sounding phrase with a similar meaning it’s quite plausible that the second was simply a copy of the first.

You might have spotted the ‘highly likely’ and ‘plausible’ above. The reason I can’t be definite is the lack of any early printed examples of ‘hokey-pokey’ which connect it to ‘hocus-pocus‘.

The earliest such example of ‘hokey-pokey’ that I know of is in the lyrics of a music hall song The King of the Cannibal Islands, popular in late Hanoverian Britain. The first reference that I can find to this is in The Edinburgh Literary Journal, 1830:

The song sold very well. So much for taste; but we would rather a thousand times listen to “Hokey pokey wonky pong, &c., King of the Cannical Islands,” in which there is at least some character and grotesque oddity.

What that citation is alluding to is the lyric of the song, which were printed in an edition of a collection of songs called Hodgson’s National Songster, printed in London in 1830. It went like this:

Have you heard the news of late,
About a nightly king so great,;
If you have not tis in my pate,
The king of the Cannibal Islands;
He was so tall, near six feet six,
He had a head like Mr. Nick’s
His palace was like Dirty Dick’s.
‘Twas built of mud for want of bricks,
And his name was…
Hokee Pokee wang-kee fum…
The king of the Cannibal Islands.

It goes on for verse after verse of doggerel racial stereotyping (I’ve left out the bit where he eats fifty of his hundred wives) that would get performers locked up these days but was considered hilarious in William IV’s day. You have to wonder what song the Edinburgh Literary Journal writer had been listening to to compare it unfavourably to The King of the Cannibal Islands. It seems that ‘hokey-pokey’ was understood to mean ‘trickery and deception’ and was co-opted into use when a funny name was needed – like fuzzy-wuzzy.

Here’s where things get tricky. A first example of a phrase in print is usually smoking gun evidence for its derivation. Sadly for our quest there are several other printed examples with different meanings all dating from the 1830s. These use the term ‘hokey-pokey’ in many different contexts, often where nefarious dealings are at hand.

For example, a court report printed in the London newspaper The Morning Chronicle, April 1832, in which the phrase had been used as the name of a somewhat risqué pub:

The last information was laid against the proprietor of “The Hokey Pokey,” new beer shop in Hackney, for selling beer during the hours of divine service on last Good Friday, and for suffering cards to be played in his house at the same time.

Other newspapers from 1833 list Hokey Pokey as the name of a horse. Later citations use the term as the name of a game played at fairs, a burlesque group, a dance (as ‘hokee-pokee’), an imaginary tumbledown village, a fake medicine cure (“a great Indian remedy that gives universal satisfaction”) etc. Another example comes from The London Examiner, April 1848:

He vouched for it that the Monster Petition had upwards oh 5,000,000 signatures; and when he is told that included the Queen’s, the Duke of Wellington’s, Prince Albert’s, Hokey-Pokey’s and the like are short of 2,000,000.

It’s clear from that piece that ‘Hokey-Pokey’ was being used as a fake name in a spurious petition, as we might use Mickey Mouse now.

The first example that I have which explicitly links ‘hokey-pokey’ to ‘hocus-pocus‘ is in James Halliwell’s A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, 1847, which lists the two as synonyms:

Hoky-poky, hocus-pocus.

While I can’t be 100% sure what ‘hokey-pokey’ originally meant I can say that it wasn’t ice cream. That usage comes later and the first example of it that I can find is from the London magazine The Era, July 1878:

The entertainment was a good one. Mr. William Roxby came on first. He sang a funny strain of an amatory kind with a chorus about a street vendor who sold “Hokey-pokey” for a penny a lump.

A penny a lump was the standard price for ice cream sold in the street – Andrew Tuer referred to it in Old London Cries, 1885:

Hokey Pokey is of a firmer make and probably stiffer material than the penny ice of the Italians.

Why choose Hokey Pokey as the name for ice cream? There isn’t an obvious link between ice cream and deception.

That name originated with the ice cream trade in Glasgow. In the late 19th century Italian emigres set themselves up selling ice cream from street stalls. Although Glasgow doesn’t seem like a place with a suitable climate for the ice cream business, trade thrived and does to this day. In The Pall Mall Gazette, February 1888 a journalist speculates that ‘hokey-pokey’ was a version of the Italian ‘O che poco!’ [O how little!]. That may or may not be so, but I don’t have a better suggestion.

It’s my view, backed up by evidence, albeit circumstantial, that ‘hokey-pokey’ is a variant of ‘hocus-pocus‘ and that it was widely co-opted for use whenever a wacky or burlesque style of expression was needed.

Hoax derives from hocus and so does ‘hokey-pokey’, so it’s fitting that expression should cover its etymological tracks so well.

See other reduplicated phrases.

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.

Gary Martin

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.