We all know that hocus-pocus is a term used in magician’s patter, the "magic words" that make the trick happen. But where does the term come from?

The term first appears as the name of a juggler or magician in the early 17th century. From John Gee’s New Shreds of the Old Snare, written in 1624:

I alwayes thought they had their rudiments from some iugling Hocas Pocas in a quart pot.

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Hobson’s choice

We debunk a lot of eponymic origins on these pages, but this is one in which the usual story is an accurate accounting of the origin of the phrase. A Hobson’s choice is no choice at all, you take what you’re given and you like it. But exactly who was Hobson?

Tobias Hobson (c.1544-1631) was a Cambridge stable manager who let horses. He was quite well known by the intelligentsia of England at the time, operating a coach run between the Bull tavern in London and the university for over sixty years and carrying virtually every Cambridge student and visitor to the university in his coach at one time or another. Milton wrote two epitaphs to Hobson upon his death:

Here lies old Hobson, Death hath broke his girt,
And here alas, hath laid him in the dirt,
Or els the ways being foul, twenty to one,
He’s here stuck in a slough, and overthrown.


Here lieth one who did most truly prove,
That he could never die while he could move.

When hiring a horse, Hobson insisted customers take the horse in the stall closest to the door (the next one up) or take none at all.

The phrase Hobson’s choice appears some thirty years after the stablemaster’s death, in Samuel Fisher’s 1660 Rusticus ad academicos etc. The rustick’s alarm to the Rabbies:

If in this Case there be no other (as the Proverb is) then Hobson’s choice...which is, chuse whether you will have this or none.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


To a New Yorker, a hero isn’t a guy who rescues children from burning buildings or jumps on a grenade to save his comrades in arms. No, a hero is a really big sandwich. This term for a sandwich, called in other parts of the country a submarine, a grinder, a poor boy, or a hoagie, dates to at least 1947. From the New York Naval Shipyard Shipworker, 19 February of that year:

The picture of Frank La Barbera in the last issue of the Shipworker showed him eating a large ham sandwich.  They should take a snapshot of you, Frank, when you devour your 3 Heros at lunch time.

Its origin is a bit of mystery, but the most likely reason for the name is that it is a big sandwich and takes a heroic effort to eat it.

It’s sometimes claimed that New York Herald-Tribune food columnist Clementine Paddleford coined hero in the 1930s, but searches of her columns have failed to find any use of the word by her.

Others claim that it comes from gyros, the Greek sandwich. This is almost certainly incorrect. English use of gyros isn’t attested to until 1968.

(Source: ADS-L)

hermetic seal

A hermetic seal is one that is air-tight, or in other words, tightly closed. Hermetic seems to be a reference to Hermes, the ancient Greek messenger-god. But how did Hermes become associated with an air-tight seal?

In the third century A.D., the philosophical school of the Neo-platonists arose in Alexandria. They associated the Egyptian god Thoth, the god of alchemy and mystical secrets and inventor of a magical seal, with Hermes, calling him Hermes Trismegistus. In the seventeenth century, English writers began using the adjective hermetic to refer to things that were sealed or secret. From Jeremy Taylor’s 1663 Sermon preached at the funeral of John (Bramhall) late Lord Archbishop of Armagh:

Not nature, but grace and glory, with an hermetic seal, give us a new signature.

So Hermes is associated with the seal only through the habit of conquering nations to associate their gods with the local gods.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


It’s often stated that hello was created specifically for the telephone; that we didn’t have this word prior to Bell’s invention. This is not quite true.

It is true that the spelling and pronunciation of hello is only as old as the telephone. From John Hay’s The Breadwinners of 1883:

Hello, Andy! you asleep.

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hell in a handbasket

To hell in a handbasket simply means going to seed without effort, a handbasket being easy to carry. The phrase appears as early as 1865 in I. Winslow Ayer’s The Great North-Western Conspiracy In All Its Startling Details:

All who were thus incarcerated should be set at liberty; that thousands of our best men were prisoners in Camp Douglas, and if once at liberty would “send abolitionists to hell in a hand basket;” he said the meanest of those prisoners was purity itself compared to “Lincoln’s hirelings.”

A less common variant, go to heaven in a handbasket, dates to 1880, when it appears in the Washington Post on 16 November:

He feels that but for the almost superhuman efforts the Stalwarts, like Grant, Conkling, Cameron and Logan, made after the disaster in Maine, he would have had no more chance of election than of going to heaven in a hand-basket, and he will not quarrel with them.

(Source: ADS-L; Making of America (Michigan); Proquest Historical Newspapers)


This word for non-Christian or pagan is common in all the Germanic languages. It appears in Old English in the year 826. From the Charter of Ecgberht from that year:

Andlang dic to ðem heðenum birithelsum.
(All along the dike to the heathen city.)

The word clearly arose after the introduction of Christianity to the German tribes, but had to be quite early for it to appear in all the Germanic tongues, sometime in the 4th century or earlier.

It is believed to have originated in Gothic and spread to the other Germanic tribes. In the 4th century, Ulfilas, bishop of the Goths, translated the Greek Bible into Gothic, fragments of which survive. In Mark 7:26, which reads “Now the woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth...” Ulfilas used the word haiþnô in place of Greek, or as it appears in the Vulgate gentilis, or gentile. Haiþnô literally means dweller on the heath. So the original sense is remarkably the same as the modern sense, someone living beyond the bounds of civilization and who has not received the word of God.

This hypothesis is not universally accepted however. Some point out that Ulfilas may have been influenced by Armenian and that heathen instead is related to the Armenian het’anos, which is derived from the Greek ethnos, meaning nation or people.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

hawk a loogie

This is a slang phrase with many variants. The verb is usually either hawk or hock and the subject varies between loogie, louie, and lunger. It means to cough up phlegm and dates to the 1970s.

Hawk is an old verb meaning to clear the throat or cough up phlegm. It dates to the late 16th century and is probably echoic in origin. From Richard Mulcaster’s 1581 Positions:

For hauking vp of blood.

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hat trick

Hockey fans know what a hat trick is, scoring three goals in a single game, but few know what it refers to. The trick part is easy enough, that is simply the sense of that word meaning feat or accomplishment, but why hat?

The term is originally from the sport of cricket. In the late 19th century, a bowler who took three wickets on three successive balls would be awarded a hat as a prize from his club. From John Lillywhite’s Cricketer’s Companion of 1877:

Having on one occasion taken six wickets in seven balls, thus performing the hat-trick successfully.

By the early 20th century, the term was being used more generally for any three-fold accomplishment. From the Daily Chronicle of 12 August 1909:

It is seldom that an apprentice does the “hat trick,” but the feat was accomplished by...an apprentice...His three successes were gained on Soldier..., Lady Carlton..., and Hawkweed.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


Harlot is a borrowing from Old French into Middle English. It did not originally mean a woman of low morals, but rather a vagabond, villain, or otherwise low-life man. From Ancren Riwle, a Middle English tract written sometime before 1225:

And beggen ase on harlot, ȝif hit neod is, his liueneð.
(And beg as does a harlot, give him his needs, his livelihood.)

About a century later, it was being used to refer to a jester or a buffoon, a humorous enterainer. From Richard Rolle of Hampole’s Psalter, written sometime before 1340:

Hoppynge & daunnceynge of tumblers and herlotis, and other spectakils.
(Hopping & dancing of tumblers and harlots, and other spectacles.)

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