From sexual dalliance to the dissolution of the monasteries: Wednesday Word Tangle


Ever been naughty?

It’s a funny word, often used to describe childish misbehaviour. It’s a light, bouncy word, downplaying the severity of waywardness, presumably because they’re kids and aren’t held responsible for their actions.

Mind you, if you’ve ever watched a group of the little horrors playing when they don’t know they’re being watched, you might replace the word naughty with ‘excessively violent, verging on sociopathic’.

Leave a group of boys alone with some sticks for half an hour and on your return you won’t find them trying to build a shelter or whittling a touching tableau of baby animals. Oh, no. They will have found something to sharpen the sticks on (their own teeth – the teeth of the smallest, most vulnerable member of the group) and they will be in the process of jabbing each other with as much force as their under-developed muscles can manage.

If you leave them a week, one will be king – an old school, Biblical king, not some kind of ineffectual figurehead only fit to wave and draw the tourists – and have the power of life and death over the rest. They will have killed and eaten a wild boar ‒ even if you left them in your local park where there’s nothing more dangerous than mallards and scabby, one legged pigeons.

William Golding knew what he was talking about when he wrote Lord of the Flies – well, the man did teach at a boys’ school.

So, I guess we realised naughty’s too tame a word for kids and we relocated it sideways, with a nod and a wink, to suggest something more adult. Bit weird, but that’s how language works – just think of the different ways the words ‘gay’ and ‘bad’ have changed in just a few decades.

But the word of the week isn’t naughty, but another saucy, adult, picture-postcard kind of word, and my first hyphenated Wednesday Word Tangle.


Now, when I hear it, I think of sexual misconduct, but in a sort of vaguely rude, but ultimately harmless way – much more Benny Hill than bondage and ball-gags. It can also be a general term for dishonesty, getting up to no good.

This was an interesting word to research, because no one seems to know for certain where it came from. Wictionary claim it could come from the Romani expression hakk’ni panki meaning ‘big con’ or ‘great trick’. There’s some talk of it coming down from illusionists and their use of handkerchiefs (the ‘panky’ bit coming about just because it rhymes and language loves a rhyme).

But most sources (and bearing in mind these are internet sources and so tend to copy and paste from each other) seem to think it’s a twist on the phrase ‘hocus-pocus’, suggesting nonsense, especially when involving magic tricks.

One derivation I read draws me and even if it’s not true, I want it to be. It claims the phrase Hocus-Pocus is a mickey take by Protestants of the Catholic belief in transubstantiation and associated religious rites. Apparently, this is also the origins of the dance the Hokey-Cokey, or Hokey-Pokey as you chaps call it in the States. The dance is supposed to be a satire of the Mass, though I’ve been to a lot of Catholic Masses and there’s been nothing as lively as a knees up, I can tell you.

I must admit to finding this idea intriguing. There has undoubtedly been enmity between the Protestants and the Catholics – the Reformation, the Spanish Armada, the dissolution of the monasteries and the wholesale vandalism of British churches under the Tudors bears witness to that.

But that this hatred should come down to us in the form of a rather quaint family-orientated dance is odd.

When I think of the Hokey-Cokey, I think of the post war years. I think of grannies in hairnets laughing like drains and flashing their frilly bloomers as they ‘shake it all about’ after two gins and a Mackeson stout. I think of village halls and VE day and girl scouts and communities united in a bit of innocent, pre-internet nonsense. This is the sort of thing we did during the Blitz (along with extra-marital sex with American squaddies and taking advantage of the black-out to burgle the neighbours).

I do not think of martyrs and massacres and religious intolerance.

So, next time you use this soft silly, fun little phrase, remember its history, because it’s a corker.

10 thoughts on “From sexual dalliance to the dissolution of the monasteries: Wednesday Word Tangle

    1. Thanks, love – you’re a sweety. Yeah, you can tell I’m a history grad who thought about teaching in adult education, can’t you? I just can’t help but give a lecture 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Great post Lynn – I was very caught by the theory (in one of your links) that hocus-pocus is the root of hoax! Although “knees bent, arms up, ra ra ra” seems a lot more like the evangelical services I see than the Catholic ones, I suspect worship may have altered more than we think since the reformation…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comments and so much for reading. I did think the link with the Mass and the Hokey Cokey was fascinating, and I sort of believe it too. I can imagine it starting as a few moves, a little song, developing into something longer and losing its origins over the centuries. Would be interesting to see a pre-Reformation service in all its glory, wouldn’t it?


    1. Aha! This is great – never heard this before, though I do know a bit of Neil’s back catalogue. Bless. I suspect this phrase meant something other than the meanings I mentioned on the post. Lovely, Jane – thanks so much for making me smile x

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You did me a favour. In recent years I’ve gone off Neil Diamond, and wondered why I had ever rated him so highly. After sending you that link, I went back to You-tube and listened to some of that stuff from the 60’s and 70’s.
        He sounded so much better back then.

        Liked by 1 person

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