Word Histories


A preliminary study on ibogaine, a hallucinogenic drug touted on the street since the 1960s as a cure for drug addiction, has persuaded the National Institute on Drug Abuse to fund additional research. “This drug at first I found a little hokey,” James Cornish, the director of pharmacotherapy at the University of Pennsylvania, recently told reporters. “But the fact that NIDA is doing a study is very important.” Hokey (contrived, fake; sentimental) has its origins in Hocus Focus, an early-seventeenth-centuryname for a magician or juggler (“Iniquity came in like Hokos Pokos, in a Juglers jerkin, with false skirts”—Ben Jonson, The expression meaning “conjuring or sleight of hand" and then developed its now most common sense of “trickery and deception” (“Thus this Statute became like a Hocus Focus, a thing to still the people for the present, and serve the King’s turn”—Nathaniel Bacon, Historical Discourse, 1647). Other words for trickery derived from hocus-pocus include hokey-pokey, hanky-panky, hoax, and simply hocus. In the United States hocus was blended with bunkum (insincere nonsense) to produce hokum (sentimental speech or actions). (Bunkum is said to be from Buncombe County, North Carolina, which made up a good portion of Congressman Felix Walker’s district back in the early nineteenth century. During the Sixteenth Congress [1819—1821] Walker made an unusually long and aimless speech, which, he said, he was obliged to do because the people of his district expected it.) From hokum came the verb hoke (to overplay; fake), which with the adjective suffix -y yielded hokey.

Staple of Newes, 1626). The name came from the “magic” words the performer intoned, either concocted from the phrase Hoc est corpus meum (This is my body ), used in the Roman Catholic mass, or as a play on the Middle Latin jocus (joke, jest), or perhaps both. Hocus-pocus became a popular


Last summer Vice President Dan Quayle branded the onagain, off-again presidential candidate Ross Perot a “temperamental tycoon who has contempt for the Constitution of the United States.”Tycoon is from the Japanese taikun (great lord; prince), which was coined from the Chinese words ta (great) and chun (prince) by the third Tokugawa shogun of Japan, Iyemitsu (1623-1649), in order to impress the “barbarian” Koreans with his superiority. (Shogun, “general,”is also a Chinese borrowing, from chiang chun, “leader of an army.”) Several centuries later, when negotiating the 1854 treaty with Commodore Matthew Perry, the Japanese representative chose taikun as the title for the Emperor of Japan. The shoguns continued to use the term for their “temporal Emperors” in ensuing dealings with outsiders, though they never recognized it as a legitimate title among themselves. Diplomats brought the word, rendered tycoon, back to the United States, where one of its earliest uses was as an affectionate nickname for Abraham Lincoln (“Gen. Butler has sent an imploring request to the President to be allowed to bag the whole nest of traitorous Maryland Legislators. This the Tycoon . . . forbade”—John Hay, Lincoln and the Civil War, 1861). Today’s most common meaning, “powerful businessman,” had gained currency by the turn of the century (“Fred W. Fitch, 56, rich hair-tonic tycoon"—Time, 1926).


Early in his bid for the presidency, Paul Tsongas instructed his doctors to disclose medical records relating to his battle with cancer. They would have to talk anyway, Tsongas said, when the inevitable “brouhaha” (attention or excitement disproportionate to the importance or merit of its cause; uproar, furor) about his health arose in the press. The first appearance of brouhaha is in the sixteenth-century French play Farce du Savetier, in which a priest disguised as the devil terrorizes the other characters by shouting “Brou, brou, brou, ha, ha, Brou, ha, ha!” This interjection is probably an onomatopoeic alteration of the first two Hebrew words of Psalms 118:26: “Barukh habba beshem Adonai” (“Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord”), which are frequently used in Jewish prayers. To those who didn’t speak Hebrew, barukh habba spoken often and rapidly could easily seem like gibberish. Altered to brouhaha, it came to mean “rapid and confused speech, noise or uproar.” The Italian badani (noise of people chattering) comes in similar fashion from the Hebrew formula anna Adonai (please, Lord), also found in Jewish prayers. In a parallel development in English, the common man, who knew little or no Latin, heard the words of the Lord’s Prayer (“Pater noster . . .”) as just so much patter (rapid and glib talk, chatter).