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Uncertain; first attested as US theater slang, possibly a blend of hocus-pocus +‎ bunkum.[1][2]



hokum (usually uncountable, plural hokums)

  1. (countable, uncountable, informal) (An instance of) meaningless nonsense with an outward appearance of being impressive and legitimate.
    Synonyms: bunkum; see also Thesaurus:nonsense
    • 1923 May 15, “Prohibition in Springfield”, in Jere L. Sullivan, editor, The Mixer and Server: Official Journal of the Hotel and Restaurant Employes’ International Alliance and Bartenders’ International League of America, volume XXXII, number 5, Cincinnati, Oh.: General Executive Board [Hotel and Restaurant Employes’ International Alliance and Bartenders’ International League of America] []; printed by Roessler Brothers, printers, publishers, →OCLC, page 27, column 1:
      Recently that publication [Collier's Weekly] has been filling its readers with the good old hokum about red likker and its steady disappearance, and if what has been offered be but half true, beer, light wine and all of the other beverages which have been tabooed by law, are on their way to that place where nothing returns.
    • 1926, The Chinese Students’ Monthly, volume 22, Detroit, Mich.: Chinese Students' Alliance in the United States of America, →OCLC, section III, page 66, column 2:
      Being in a mood of constructive criticism, I suggest that all future student conferences be made strictly social affairs. All addresses, forum discussions, patriotic service, and other hocums, as such, shall be done away with. Outside of a handful of persons, who either had to or did not know any better, everybody shunned the non-social events.
    • 1945 May, Alexander Wiley, “Patent Medicine Politics”, in Washington News Digest, Washington, D.C.: Washington News Digest Foundation, →OCLC; republished in Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the 79th Congress, First Session: Appendix, volume 91, part II, Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 14 May 1945, →ISSN, →OCLC, page A2252, column 1:
      I think we have learned to beware of these political charlatans. We have enough horse sense to neutralize their hokum. But let's start right now to take their hokum apart and show up its component elements for just what they are—the siren songs of demagogy.
    • 1999, Congressional Record, volume 145, part 19, Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, →ISSN, →OCLC, page 26921, column 2:
      It is pure hocum, this language that they want more police officers, and they vetoed it over the lack of funding in this account. It is just a pure political thing.
  2. (countable, uncountable, informal) (An instance of) excessively contrived, hackneyed, or sentimental material in a film, television programme, theater production, etc.
    • 1905, Harry L[ee] Newton, “Crazy Stunts by Harlan Tarbell [advertisement]”, in A Bundle of Burnt Cork Comedy: Original Cross-fire Conversations, Gags, Retorts, Minstrel Monologues and Stump Speeches, Minneapolis, Minn.: T. S. Denison & Company, →OCLC, page 127:
      The majority of the twenty-six stunts described in this volume belong to a species of so-called hokum acts derived from the professional stage and handed down through several generations of actors.
    • 1911 November 25, Hartley Davis, “The Play and the Public”, in Lyman Abbott, editor, The Outlook, volume 99, New York, N.Y.: Outlook Pub. Co., →OCLC, page 767:
      Every experienced playwright, every manager, every stage director, every intelligent actor who has passed his novitiate, knows of things that always have received a certain definite response. Many of these have been formulated. In the sad, glad days of prosperous melodrama they were known as "sure-fire hokum." [...] The "sure-fire hokum" of murderous melodrama encompassed, in a crudely elemental form it is true, nearly all the essentials of success in dramatic situation, most of the values that make popular favor for a play.
    • 1919, George Jean Nathan, “Hokum”, in Comedians All, New York, N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, →OCLC, § 29, page 118:
      Probably nowhere else do the popular playmakers of Broadway reveal their imaginative shortcomings so clearly as in the employment of what is colloquially known as hokum. In particular, comedy hokum. [...] Year in and year out, and (though still largely sure-fire) become drably stereotyped and threadbare, this hokum of tripping over the doormat, throwing an imaginary object into the wings and having the stagehand thereupon strike a gong, and the like, is promulgated in all the glory of its venerable whiskers.
    • 2005, Lawrence Gushee, quoting Sam Kahl, “The Second Season”, in Pioneers of Jazz: The Story of the Creole Band, Oxford: Oxford University Press, →ISBN, page 138:
      The "classy" stuff is pretty to talk about, it furnishes inspiration for the dramatic writer, but it is the hocum, the jazbo, what vaudeville styles "comedy acts," which please an audience.
    • 2009 January 2, Manny Farber, “The Quiet Man: That’s John Wayne, who Used to Speak with His Fists and has to Brandish Them Once Again to Win the Girl of His Dreams”, in The Nation[1], archived from the original on 28 April 2016:
      [M]ostly the moviegoer has to put up with clumsily contrived fist fights, musical brogues spoken as though the actor were coping with an excess of tobacco juice in his mouth, mugging that plays up all the trusted hokums that are supposed to make the Irish so humorous-sympathetic, and a script that tends to resolve its problems by having the cast embrace, fraternity-brother fashion, and break out into full-throated ballads.
    • 2012 March 19, David Denby, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s: “Casablanca” on the Big Screen”, in The New Yorker[2]:
      An anonymous Warner Bros. story analyst in New York, reading it in manuscript, nevertheless reported the alluring presence of “sophisticated hokum.”
    • 2013 August 22, Mike D’Angelo, “Movie Review: Short Term 12”, in The A.V. Club[3], archived from the original on 30 December 2018:
      A war gets fought between authenticity and hokum in Short Term 12, and it ends in an uneasy truce. [...] As it goes along, however, Short Term 12 increasingly succumbs to a screenwriter's worst impulses, becoming neat and tidy in ways that undermine what’s so good about it.
  3. (countable, informal) A film, television programme, theater production, etc., containing excessively contrived, hackneyed, or sentimental material.
    • 2004, Julian Upton, “Sir Stanley Baker: The Outsider”, in Fallen Stars: Tragic Lives & Lost Careers (Critical Vision Book), Manchester: Headpress, →ISBN, part 3 (Final Acts), page 136:
      [H]e [Stanley Baker] was still churning out the kind of Boy's Own hokums and dreary international espionage thrillers that defined that bygone era.
  4. (uncountable, music) A genre of blues song or music, often characterized by sexual innuendos or satire.
    • 1956, Marshall W[inslow] Stearns, “The Jazz Age Begins”, in The Story of Jazz, paperback edition, New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, published 1970, →ISBN, page 153:
      [D]uring the 'twenties, jazz developed from an infrequent ‘hokum’ music in a few vaudeville acts to a household commodity.
    • 1985, Paul Oliver, “Black Music: ‘Sales Tax on It’: Race Records in the New Deal Years”, in Stephen W. Baskerville, Ralph Willett, editors, Nothing Else to Fear: New Perspectives on America in the Thirties, Manchester: Manchester University Press, →ISBN, page 210:
      As a result a hybrid music, ‘hokum’, became popular. It owed much to ‘Georgia Tom’ Dorsey, Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy, and the first recordings in the idiom appeared around 1929. Many recordings by The Famous Hokum Boys, the Hokum Trio, The Hokum Boys and similar groups were recorded by 1930. Jokey, often bawdy, frequently satirical, they employed rural techniques in an urban setting, gently lampooning country ways through a city sophistication.
    • 1990, The Devil’s Box, Madison, Ala.: Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers’ Association, →ISSN, →OCLC, page 27:
      ES: That thing that you call double bow, I've heard many different names for it. / JG: Rockin' the bow. / ES: I've heard it called a straight shuffle. I've heard it called hocum. Have you ever heard it called hocum? / JG: Yeah, we call the jazz hocum. You see, anything away from the melody.
    • 2008, “R&B”, in Charles Reagan Wilson, general editor, Bill C. Malone, editors, Music, Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, →ISBN, page 108:
      Pianist [Thomas A.] Dorsey and guitarist Tampa Red popularized the double-entendre, up-tempo novelty blues style known as hokum blues that was a forerunner of the up-tempo rhythm and blues, whose similarly adult lyrics often had to be bowdlerized when covered by white singers for the white teen market in the 1950s.
    • 2013, Larry Birnbaum, “The Jumpin’ Jive”, in Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ’n’ Roll, Lanham, Md.: The Scarecrow Press, Rowman & Littlefield, →ISBN, page 133:
      Blues and hokum intertwined at least through the mid-1930s, when the hokum bands faded out. [...] Hokum was also absorbed into the jazz tradition.

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  1. ^ Compare “hokum, n.”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 1933; “hokum, n.”, in Lexico, Dictionary.com; Oxford University Press, 2019–2022.
  2. ^ hokum”, in Dictionary.com Unabridged, Dictionary.com, LLC, 1995–present; “hokum”, in Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 1996–present.

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