This Americanism meaning to skip school probably comes from the Dutch hoekje, a name for the game of hide and seek. It is first recorded in the late 1840s. The metaphor behind it is one of skipping school to play games.
From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of 17 June 1842:
“When I was a child,” says the apostle, “I thought as a child,” &c., “but when I became a man, I put away childish things."—That is, if we rightly understand the language, he no longer drove the hoop, shot marbles, flyed kites, (not even after the Wall street fashion,) hunted birds’ nests, played “hookey,” and chased butterflies, with eyes nearly starting from their sockets with excitement.1
And from 5 June 1846:
A mother, perhaps, has a favorite young son, who “begs off” from school, or “plays hookey.”2
It is often suggested that it may instead come from the phrasal verb to hook it, meaning to run away or clear out. This verb is about a century older in Britain, but does not appear in the US until well after the 1840s,3 so it is unlikely to be the origin of the Americanism.
1”Public Amusements,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn), 17 June 1842, 2.
2”City Intelligence,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn), 5 June 1846, 2.
3Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 2, H-O, edited by J.E. Lighter (New York: Random House, 1997), 144.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton