hokey-cokey, hokey-pokey

Thursday's British referendum on EU membership (let's not talk about the result) has given American readers cause to wonder about the hokey-cokey (thanks for pointing this out, Emma). Americans know the song-dance as the hokey-pokey. On referendum day, it was a hashtag on Twitter, with gems like these:

 (Click here for a barbershop referendum hokey-cokey.)

Various sources tell origin stories for the song/dance. It may be based on an old British or Irish children's song/game, but it definitely became popular (as hokey-cokey) in British music hall entertainment in the 1940s. The Hokey Pokey Dance was copyrighted in the US in the 1940s, and recorded in the 1950s as the Hokey Pokey.  And of course there were legal battles.  I'll refer you to Fraser's Phrases on BBC America's Anglophenia for more of the story.

Sometimes it's also known as The Hokey-Tokey. Maybe particularly in New Zealand where Hokey-Pokey is a flavo(u)r of ice cream.

The tune is the same, but the lyrics (and therefore actions) may differ a bit.  I can only tell you about where I grew up in the US and where my child is growing up in the UK, and there might be local variations.

Here's a Hokey Pokey:

And here's a Hokey Cokey:

The differences in these are in line with my experience, that the "knees bent, arms stretched, rah-rah-rah" part is not used in the Hokey-Pokey, but is generally found in the Hokey-Cokey.

Any other good #hokeycokey tweets or jokes to share? Or school dance horror stories? I need some cheering up...


  1. Being British, I'd say I remember the Hokey Cokey, complete with "Knees bent, arms stretch, rah, rah, rah" (or maybe Ra! Ra! Ra! as invocation to the sun to come back...)

    I'd also suggest, having watched Debbie Doo, she can't follow her own instructions. "Shake it all about" after "Put your left arm in, put your left arm out" surely refers to the left arm, not the whole body? The Brits in the other video agree with me.

  2. When my first was born I had only been in the US for a few years and was not aware of the traps lying ahead as far as nursery rhymes and songs was concerned. Not only did I sing "Half a pound of tuppenny rice" instead of "All around the Cobbler's bench", I rushed into the middle of the group after the right and left arm verses of the Hokey Cokey (singing "Oooooh hokey cokey cokey"). No one seems to do it here but I remember as a child in England, you could actually get injured in the rush.

  3. In NZ hokey-pokey is the sweet which I think is called honey-comb the same stuff that you find in the middle of a Crunchie Bar. Small balls of this sweet are added to vanilla ice cream with the result being hokey-pokey ice cream. It is NZ's best selling ice cream.

    1. Apologies for lack of punctuation, I am battling auto correct which keeps removing words.

    2. Also completely forgot to say that growing up in NZ, the song/dance was known to us as hokey coke.

  4. Lynne

    It may be based on an old British or Irish children's song/game

    I presume you're referring to

    Hokey Pokey, penny a lump
    The more you lick, the more you jump

    The rhythm and the shouted word Jump! make it ideal for skipping games, but it's also common in versions of the traditional English Mummers' Play, where the Doctor uses it to bring Saint George (or is it the Turkey Knight?) back to life.

    Hokey-pokey was a type of ice-cream, which somebody registered as a brand name. It's distinguishing characteristic was that it wasn't Italian. Some writers took this to be a bad thing: that it was a cheap substitute. One quote is more positive.The New Zealand confectionery is also a brand name — or at least it was when the OED entry was last revised.

    One quotation in the OED entry is of somebody debunking the pretentious etymology that it's a corruption of the Italian O che poco! 'Oh what a little ice cream!'

    The OED entry for hokey-cokey traces it back not further than 1943 and a snooty item in the Dancing Times which reported that some local dancers had the name wrong, and that it was really Cokey Cokey.

  5. David: I was referring to the one in the Anglophenia article:

    'So, let’s start at the beginning. There’s a traditional children’s song called “I Put My Little Hands In,” (based on an old English/Scots folk dance called “Hinkim-Booby”), the lyrics to which go like this:

    “I put my both hands in,
    I put my both hands out,
    I give my both hands a shake shake shake
    And turn myself about.” (repeat for other body parts)'

  6. Is there any connection with "hocus pocus"?

  7. Lynne, that game rhyme is a plausible origin for the hokey cokey but not for hokey pokey.

  8. People of a certain age in the UK might remember "Andy Pandy" on "Watch with Mother", and the song "Here we go Looby Loo", which was also a "put your right hand in" sort of affair.

    Hokey-pokey, to me, is ice-cream (didn't Scottish children run after the ice-cream man singing "Hokey-pokey, penny a clart"?), and the song, beloved, alas, of the nursery generation, is "Hokey-cokey".

  9. Doubtless hokey-cokey was invented by the Irish and hokey-pokey by the Welsh.

  10. The hocus-pocus possible connection is mentioned at the Anglophenia link.

    Mrs Redboots: Americans have that song too, but I would have called it 'loop-de-loo', and looking online there are many variations, kind of like our previous discussion of peekaboo/beebo/etc..

    One site has it as 'looby loo' and as a 'song of the USA', noting that Hokey-Pokey is still under copyright.

    There's a site that has it going back to England 1898, but possibly earlier in Scotland: http://www.musicexpressmagazine.com/bin/FolkSongPartnersMA.pdf

  11. The one trans-Atlantic difference that I have most noticed is that it seems that in Britain, at the end of each verse, everyone yells "Hokey-Cokey!" whereas this was not done in America when I was a kid. (On the other hand, my daughter recently sang the song what I perceived to be the British way, so it may be a regional thing; I grew up in Michigan and Oregon, but now I live in South Carolina.)

    Also, in America, the Hokey-Pokey is very much associated with swimming pools. It's a activity for little kids to engage in during swim lessons.

    Finally, I have to share a story. My wife and I were heading to our car in a dark and largely empty parking garage. We spotted an amorous couple on the level below us, well dressed, obviously intoxicated, and presumably near the end of a date. She was thrusting her chest forward into his face in the least subtle "Take me now!" gesture possible. As we walked on, my wife starting singing quietly:

    You put your right boob in.
    You put your right boob out.
    You put your right boob in,
    And you shake it all about.
    You do the hanky panky
    When there's no one else around.
    That's what it's all about!

  12. I heard a pleasant tale explaining how the song commemorated the burial of General Santa-Ann's left leg, and its later disinterrment.

    "You put your left leg in, you take your left leg out,

  13. Bill Bailey Kraftwerk on that YouTube thing - I find immoderately amusing...

  14. I've certainly heard of hokey-pokey as a sweet sold in the streets in Edwardian, even Victorian, times, so long predating the 1940s "authorised version" of the song-dance. I have heard it said that both "hocus pocus" and "hokey-cokey" may derive from Protestant mockery of Roman Catholic Latin liturgy, centuries ago, but with what literary warrant, I don't know.

  15. "Bill Bailey Kraftwerk on that YouTube thing - I find immoderately amusing..."

    Ha, I'd forgotten all about that. It's brilliant (as is that entire set - Part Troll).

  16. The OED quotes an eighteenth century sermon

    In all probability those common juggling words of hocus pocus are nothing else but a corruption of hoc est corpus, by way of ridiculous imitation of the priests of the Church of Rome in their trick of Transubstantiation.

    and surmise that this is the sole source for the idea.

    Of hokey-pokey they reckon that its earliest sense 'Deception, cheatery, underhand work' is based on hook-pocus but other senses may well have a different origin.

  17. I'm American and just heard "hokey-cokey" for the first time last year. My British colleague is from the North, so it sounded more like "Orkey Corkey".

  18. I found Debbie Doo's version of the Hokey Pokey to be more similar to the Hokey Cokey shown here than would be the Hokey Pokey versions I am used to. The main difference is that most Hokey Pokey recordings don't repeat the "you do the Hokey Pokey" bit in between each verse, and most of them also say "you do the Hokey Pokey and you turn YOURSELF around"...and also, most people I know do a different gesture for the "do the Hokey Pokey" words--they put their bent arms out to the sides, with hands up, and lean back and forth WHILE turning around. But fun to see all the versions, in any case!

    1. Yes that's it, hands on hips etc. The only thing I remember any one saying after each verse is to announce the next limb for the upcoming verse. Say at a wedding the crowd just finished left arm,shook and turned themselves around, that's what it's all about; someone shouts "right arm"

  19. @John Cowan

    I appreciate your joke, even if no one else does :)

  20. The "Edmonds Cookery Book", a copy of which is owned by everyone I know in NZ - the first edition came out in 1908 - has the following recipe:

    5 tablespoons sugar
    2 tablespoons golden syrup
    1 teaspoon Edmonds baking soda

    Put sugar and golden syrup into a saucepan. Heat gently, stirring constantly until sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and bring to the boil. Boil for 2 minutes. Stir occasionally, if necessary, to prevent burning. Remove from heat. Add baking soda. Stir quickly until mixture froths up. Pour into a buttered tin immediately. Leave until cold and hard. Break into pieces.

    (Edmonds is a traditional (founded in 1879) Kiwi manufacturer of baking powder and other baking and cooking ingredients: http://edmondscooking.co.nz/)

    Try it. It works! And the stuff's actually quite nice. As far as I know dairies (NZ English for "corner shops") stopped selling chunks of hokey pokey from big jars over the counter ages ago. These days you can still buy hokey pokey occasionally, sealed in candybar-sized and -shaped plastic bags but maybe even that practice has stopped. I suppose the popularity of hopey pokey has waned as a result of people becoming more aware of how unhealthy the stuff actually is.

    Hokey pokey ice-cream, well, if it really is a trademark, then it is probably owned by the Tip Top brand (founded in 1936) which now belongs to Fonterra, a Kiwi diary co-operative. On their website, https://www.tiptop.co.nz/about/, Tip Top states, "We’re proud to be the home of ‘Kiwi as’ names like Trumpet, Fruju, Jelly Tip, Choc Bar, Memphis Meltdown and Popsicle – not to mention that quintessential ice cream flavour, Hokey Pokey."

  21. @Buzz

    Coming from Wisconsin, I have never heard of anyone doing the hokey-pokey in or near a swimming pool. In my personal experience, it was something that happened at roller rinks, children's birthdays, and the occasional wedding; similar to the chicken dance.


The book!

View by topic



AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)