Puzzle 21

John Baez

Q: How is the phrase hanky panky related to the transubstantiation of the body of Christ?

A: The etymology of hanky panky is controversial, but it may go back to hoc est enim corpus meum - a phrase meaning "this is my body", used in the Roman Catholic version of the Eucharist. This sacrament commemorates the incident in the Last Supper when Jesus gave his disciples bread and wine, saying "this is my body" and "this is my blood". In Catholic theology, the wafer that believers eat at the Eucharist actually becomes the body of Christ - a supernatural transformation called "transubstantiation".

When Protestantism spread through England, it seems this ritual got parodied by naughty non-Catholics using the phrase hocus pocus dominocus. This phrase then shrunk to hocus pocus - which got the connotation of "contrived nonsense uttered when performing a magic trick."

Later, it seems this phrase mutated to hokey cokey and hokey pokey - British and American names for dances that again may have begun as satires on the Catholic Mass. Americans may remember this:

You put your right foot in,
You put your right foot out;
You put your right foot in,
And you shake it all about.
You do the Hokey-Pokey,
And you turn yourself around.
That's what it's all about!
Brits will remember this:
You put your right foot in,
Your right foot out,
In, out, in, out,
And shake it all about.
You do the Hokey Cokey,
And you turn around,
That's what it's all about.
The word hocus pocus also gave rise to the word hoax and, yes, hanky panky. The original meaning of "hanky panky" was something like "mischievous trickery", but it later acquired sexual connotations.

I should admit that some people advocate other etymologies for hocus pocus. For example, in England, in the reign of King James I, there was a stage magician who was called Mr. Hokus Pocus because he used this phrase when doing his tricks.

My interest in this puzzle began with some avant-garde rock music. I've long wondered about the phrase hokey pokey dominokey, which features prominently in a song called "Donimo" (sic) on the album Treasure by the Cocteau Twins. They're a truly great rock band whose lyrics are mainly nonsense phrases. But somehow this phrase sounded familiar! Eventually, with the help of James Dolan and David Corfield, I realized it was the mere tip of an etymological iceberg.

Noam D. Elkies points out that the related phrase orky porky dominorky shows up in the last line of the University of Redlands school cheer, which is charmingly titled Och Tamale. With the help of one Jameson Marvin this phrase found its way from California to Harvard, and now the line horcty porcty dominorky appears as part of a choral warmup exercise.

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