What’s Up With the Hokey Pokey?

(Last Updated On: April 21, 2022)
You know doing the Hokey Pokey over an office table seems like a bad idea.

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 now we’ve awoken some primal memory that might have you receding into the very depths of your own soul. Honestly, you can probably see it now. An adult who was too blessed to be stressed telling a bunch of kids to do the Hokey Pokey, but now that you’re probably older you realize you likely missed the dead-inside look they carried in their eyes. Or was that just us? Moving on, what’s up with the Hokey Pokey?

False, Cheap Material

The term “hokey pokey” itself probably came about in the late 1840s. There are two possible origin stories for it, one that it was an evolution of the term “hocus pocus.” Or it was simply just a collection of nonsense syllables popularized from a song from the 1830s. It likely referred to false or otherwise cheap material, popularly applied to cheap ice cream in Philadelphia in 1884.

The term “hocus pocus” itself dates back probably to the 1630s. It was used by jugglers as a kind of sham-Latin, a parody of Hoc est corpus meum. That translates to “this is my body,” and was used as a sacramental blessing in Catholic mass. Thus, the term “hocus pocus” broadly parodied the Catholic idea of transubstantiation. Transubstantiation is the belief that the bread and wine consumed during Mass literally turns into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Whether or not “hokey pokey” picked this up too when the term was popularized isn’t too clear though, but the British name for the Hokey Pokey, which is Hokey Cokey, might be a bit of a bridge. 

The Song

As far as the song itself goes, its origins are relatively ambiguous. Early versions of what could be the Hokey Pokey appear all over the place. One was popularized in Scotland around 1842, instructing dance participants to similarly put their hands in and out. An indoor game called “Ugly Mug,” popularized around 1872 also instructs people to put their hands in, out, and shake them about. 

There’s even a more modern claim that the Hokey Pokey came about as a parody of Catholic Latin Mass, though these claims largely don’t line up with the history of publications related to the Hokey Pokey. Partly because of the hocus pocus stuff we referenced earlier, and also because Catholics believed the dance itself was a parody of people participating in mass. There’s another story about a British bandleader named Al Tabor being told to write a party song, and the guy was inspired by an ice cream vendor, writing the song in the 1940s. Tabor got into a fight with well-known publisher Jimmy Kennedy over the copyright, but the two settled out of court and Tabor surrendered any ownership. Both stories, again, don’t line up with established songs published well before the 1940s. So while the copyright for the Hokey Pokey dates back to the 1940s, the song itself likely predates our more modern understanding of intellectual property. 

Alternative Names

Other places in the world actually have alternative names for the Hokey Pokey. In Denmark they do a similar dance, but call it the Boogie Woogie. In the UK, it’s more commonly known as the Hokey Cokey, and it did peak in its popularity during the 1940s. For Americans, the Hokey Pokey was popularized in the 1950s. It is frequently credited to the Sun Valley Trio, who would have recorded the song in 1948 and released it in 1950. Copyright for a song very similar to the Hokey Pokey (it’s called the Hokey Pokey Dance in the copyright filing) is attributed to Pennsylvanian musicians, and was acquired in 1944. 

Either way, the Hokey Pokey probably wasn’t popularized by any of the people fighting over its copyright and original authorship. It was Ray Anthony who made the Hokey Pokey widespread in 1953. Today, Sony/ATV has the copyright to the Hokey Pokey. Cool.

We managed to get away with not making you read most of the lyrics to the Hokey Pokey. You’re kind of welcome. But you can see if you know them here.



About Kyler 705 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.