Hilary Sargent wrote for the Boston Globe back in 2015:

If you were asked who cleans Boston streets, chances are you’d say a street sweeper. You would only be partly right. Cleaning up the mess left behind by sanitation trucks and street sweepers is the job of ‘hokeys,’ employed by Boston’s Department of Public Works.

“A hokey is someone that takes a dustpan and broom and sweeps the street,’’ says Joanne Sullivan. Sullivan was featured in a video by the city to highlight the relatively unknown role.

The video is only three minutes long and immensely charming (I love her accent), but of course what drew my attention is the word. It’s not in the OED or any of my other dictionaries, even Webster’s Third; it’s not in HDAS; Green’s has hokey n “a hobo, a tramp; a fool; nonsense,” but if that’s the source one would want to see documentation of the change in meaning. It’s not limited to Boston; see Kalani Gordon’s “From White Wings to hokey men: City street sweeping through the years” for the Baltimore Sun‘s The Darkroom:

At the turn of the century, Baltimore’s street sweepers were called White Wings because of the fancy white uniforms they wore, complete with coats and ties and matching pith helmets. In 1985, they were called hokey men — don’t ask why; no one seems to remember how or when they got the name — and they wore whatever they wanted, usually under a bright yellow sweatshirt emblazoned with the logo of the city Bureau of Solid Waste.

These municipal employees are the folks who keep the city streets and alleys clean the hard way: gathering up the trash, bit by bit, a piece at a time.

So, anybody know anything about this mysterious term?


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    Various hits in the google books corpus from the 1890’s and early 20th century suggest that “hokey-pokey” or “hokey-pokey cart” was the name of the thing that got pushed around so that refuse etc. could be put into it for later disposal. E.g., from 1896 (if the metadata isn’t wrong): ‘The methods employed by the street department in the temporary disposal of the accumulations of manure and street filth collected by the “ hokey – pokey ” carts is a subject for consideration.’

    Then you just need to transfer the word from the cart to the guy who pushes it around and clip hokey-pokey to hokey. A 1903 article from a trade publication explaining how things are done in Pittsburgh sez: “When a cage full of paper is gathered by the hokey man , he retires to the nearest alley and ignites” it. That comes with a photo showing the cart but alas not with any flames visible.

    These early usages show the meaning but do not directly explain the etymology. But this was a superficial look on my part so there may well be something there that won’t require much more work to excavate.

  2. Thanks, that’s very helpful indeed!

  3. And yet, hokey-pokey man referred to an ice-cream vendor.

  4. I heard “hokey” in the meaning “carpet sweeper” (as in a quiet, non-electrical vacuum cleaner substitute) when I worked at a country club in Minneapolis in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Maybe Hoky is a brand name that comes from J. W. Brewer’s hokey-pokey cart?

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    @Y, I am only aware of the “ice cream” sense of hokey-pokey from the song written by Richard Thompson, from which I infer that it is a BrEng sense, or at best a regionalism in AmEng in some region I have not personally lived in.

  6. It’s in Green, and also in old newspapers, e.g. in Chronicling America.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    Here’s a 21st century etymology that raises my hackles of suspicion (which doesn’t mean it couldn’t be true, of course): “Hokey Pokey ice cream is a bit of a mystery. The original cry of the itinerant Italian ice-cream seller in England was a corruption of either or both of the Italian expressions ‘Ecco un poco’, or ‘Che un poco'” You can find a similar account involving Italian-immigrant ice cream sellers in Baltimore.

  8. PlasticPaddy says

    What about ecco una coppa with metathesis of p and c, i.e., ecco (una) coppa > okey copey > (h) okey pokey?

  9. Green rightly dismisses the Italian etymology, and says, “more likely is a link to hokey-pokey n.1 , i.e. the passing off of cheap versions of superior products.”

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    “Och , you phanix bright , don ‘ t you come over me with your dixionary words ; for if you do , by the hokey pokey , I’ll put you at a non – plush wid some of my own Latin ; and when I can ‘ t find Latin , I ‘ ll pitch in Greek.” Dialogue from a play from 1847 (if the metadata is to be trusted), probably by a character not intended to be an Italian immigrant. Obviously, “hokey-pokey” could have already existed as a vague nonsense phrase in English already and still have been independently coined (or borrowed from garbled Italian) to fit some subsequent semantic niche, but …

  11. Jen in Edinburgh says

    J. W. Brewer: Here’s the OED which the same idea in a slightly different form in the 19th century

    1888 Pall Mall Gaz. 25 Sept. 3/2 The correct origin of the term ‘Hokey Pokey, a penny a lump’. [An incident is related as tending to identify the term with the It. O che poco! ‘O how little!’]

    Also on carts:

    1910 A. Bennett Clayhanger ii. 226 Three hokey-pokey ice-cream hand-carts, one after another, turned the corner of Trafalgar Road.

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    I learn from the link to Green that yet another sense of “hokey-pokey” is “solitary confinement,” as rhyming slang for a Hindi-derived word that reportedly means that in some argotish variety of BrEng. Having spent a chunk of my professional time in recent years representing a prisoner who spent decades in solitary confinement in the N.Y. state prison system I know more relevant lexical items than I used to and am thus pretty confident in saying that that sense of “hokey-pokey” is not current in the New-York-state-prison-system dialect. (One relevant lexeme in that dialect, FWIW, is SHU, pronounced like “shoe” and an initialism for the euphemistic “Special Housing Unit.”)

  13. @J.W. Brewer: It is peculiar that there are apparently unrelated senses of pokey and hokey-pokey that both indicate places of imprisonment. Green has hokey-pokey as rhyming slang for chokey, which is a familiar (if not especially common) term for prison—or, for those already in prison, solitary confinement. Previously, chokey had meant various kinds of small structures, including customs posts, toll posts, and (most importantly) police stations. The earliest attestation in the OED for chokee meaning jail is from Dr. Livingston in 1866.

    The derived rhyme hokey-pokey also seems to be earlier (Green says 1889) than the much more familiar pokey for prison, which none of the sites seem to have dated to before 1919 (although the 1919 attestation is a definition in The Jargon Book by one Charles H. Darling, so the term itself must be older). This sense of pokey apparently derives from the similar pogey: “hostel for the needy or disabled; a poorhouse; a local relief centre or welfare office”—of unknown origin (attested 1890). The OED also lists a second related sense of pogey that appears in the mid-twentieth century: “Relief given to the needy from national or local funds; unemployment benefit. on (the) pogey: on the dole.” I don’t think any of those meanings of pogey is familiar to me, and certainly not the “dole” sense.

  14. The absence of hokey: street sweeper from GDoS is only explicable by its being restricted to Boston, MA. The size restrictions of the original (print) version meant that I focused on ‘countrywide’ material, but of course the accent was on NYC so while I do have the equivalent ‘white wings’ (https://greensdictofslang.com/entry/ulg7gba) I would have sidestepped Boston (slang) localisms. Whether the unfettered ‘space’ of a digital dictionary now calls for the inclusion of the language of Boston and many other cities (and not only in the US) remains a question I have yet properly to address. So many sources, so little time.

  15. To hoke is a Scots word meaning to dig. As a child in Northern Ireland, I knew it only in the sense of ‘bin hoking’ – taking something out of a (garbage/rubbish) bin, because you dropped it in there accidentally perhaps, or alternatively because you were poor and had to eat what other people threw away. (Children tease people for the former because of the latter, the world over probably.) Anyway, that’s my guess as to the origin of this, given the Irish roots of Bostonians.

  16. Kirk McElhearn says

    I’m from New York City, and the only usage I know for hokey is this (from the dictionary on my Mac):

    hok·ey | ˈhōkē |
    adjective (hokier, hokiest) North American informal
    mawkishly sentimental: a good-hearted, slightly hokey song.
    • noticeably contrived: a hokey country-western accent.

  17. Andre Mayer says

    Growing up in the Boston suburbs, I knew “hoky” as a brand of carpet sweeper — a different type, I think, from the more common Bissell.

  18. So many sources, so little time.

    I feel your pain!

  19. David Marjanović says

    • noticeably contrived: a hokey country-western accent.

    “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster by your side.”

  20. don’t you come over me with your dixionary words ; for if you do, by the hokey pokey, I’ll put you at a non-plush wid some of my own Latin

    Given the reference to Latin, that must be a variation on hocus pocus, which is also the derivation Green gives for hokey-pokey n.1 “swindling and other illicit activities; nonsense; an unspecified object”. The speaker is stage-Oirish, as can be seen from the next sentence, “when Greek fails, I’ll give you Irish, which, in consequence of its vernacularity, is most convaynient to me,” and in nearby dialogue, “be jabers”, “ivery word”, “och”, “quare”, etc.

  21. J.W. Brewer says

    So what’s maybe most interesting is the subsequent semantic drift of “hokey-pokey” from meaning “an unspecified object” to meaning (in some varieties of English at some times and places) certain specified objects!

  22. ktschwarz says

    Green only has one quotation under “an unspecified object”, so it seems to me like he’s saying “can’t tell for sure what it means here” rather than giving a definition. The quotation is “You tell the tale and I make the hokey pokey, works by the celebrated Gulley Jimson” from The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary, which to me sounds like it would fit just fine under either “swindling” or “nonsense”.

  23. i know “the pokey” as (recognizable but not current except as deliberate archaism) slang for jail or prison, but not the street-sweeping uses. i’ve always assumed that was related to “poke” (as in “a pig in a”, from the “tight confinement” angle), but i could see a shared origin in a “the place for discards” meaning for “hokey-pokey”, that then gets clipped and metonymized in different ways.

    there’s also “pokey” for “slow”, as in The Pokey Little Puppy, but that seems less related…

  24. “pogey” meaning dole is a Canadianism. A Concise Dictionary of Canadianisms says it comes from hobo slang for workhouse. First citation 1936 meaning relief centre. For unemployment insurance payments, first citation 1960.

    Dave Hall: To hoke is a Scots word meaning to dig.

    “tattie hokers” were migrant farm workers who travelled from Ireland to work the harvest in Scotland.

    The praties and protests of the tattie hokers

  25. David L. Gold says

    “Green only has one quotation under “an unspecified object”, so it seems to me like he’s saying “can’t tell for sure what it means here” rather than giving a definition”

    To avoid creating doubts about the author’s intention, one should put definitions in single quotation marks and the editors’ remarks in brackets:

    ‘thingamajig, whatchamacallitt’

    [an unspecified object]

  26. bin hoking

    Known in the U.S. as dumpster diving.

  27. Virginia Tech’s nickname, Hokies or Hokie Nation, reportedly refers to a turkey, aka HokieBird. Their teams had (reportedly) previously been known as Gobblers.

  28. PlasticPaddy says

    This is the sort of spade the “prattie hokers” used.
    It has a very thin curved blade.

  29. The Hoky carpet sweeper brand is likely derived from ‘hoki’, Japanese for broom. While the trademark now seems to be owned by Oreck, it looks to have originally been registered by Hukuba Kogyo Co, Ltd of Japan.

  30. ‘Hokey-pokey’, the late 19th-early 20th summer treat, was a faux inexpensive ice cream substitute, commonly sold from small carts. https://oldlineplate.com/hokey-pokey/
    It seems a small step to generalize ‘hokey-pokey cart’ to mean ‘small push cart, as was used to sell hokey pokey’, which I think is the sense used when it shows up in municipal inventories.

  31. Good point.

  32. How is the children’s song “Do the Hokey-pokey” connected with this?

  33. It’s a long story; the crux is ‘The inspiration for the song’s title that resulted, “The Hokey Pokey”, supposedly came from an ice cream vendor whom Tabor had heard as a boy, calling out, “Hokey pokey penny a lump. Have a lick make you jump.”’

  34. John Cowan says

    A friend of mine owns a T-shirt saying “Maybe the hokey-pokey is what it’s all about.” In this case the term presumably refers to a dance move, but there doesn’t seem to be any move directly corresponding to it. Hokey-cokey seems to be the original form, with hokey-pokey in North America and hokey-tokey in Austral English (WP says, to avoid collision with other senses of hokey-pokey in current use)

  35. I know someone with the same shirt. I interpreted the “hokey-pokey” as the whole combined set of dance moves and probably also lyrics.

    The dance has a different cultural role in America and Britain as well. In Britain, it was a popular music hall dance in the middle of the twentieth century. It was danced by adults, and it was standard to yell, “Hokey-pokey,” at the end of each verse. In America, the hokey-pokey is mostly done by children, and it is frequently (probably prototypically) done by groups in swimming pools.

    Finally, one night while my wife and I were retrieving our car from a parking garage, the only other people around were another couple. The woman was falling all over the man, with exaggerated gestures of pressing close to him as she laughed at his jokes. As we got in our car, my wife glanced over at the other pair and started singing:

    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!

  36. David Marjanović says

    Premarital hanky-panky.



    …edit: uh, all these links are safe for work.

  37. I don’t understand any of the strips, but I guess you have to be familiar with the characters, story, etc.

  38. John Cowan says

    In the first strip, Person in Green Monster Hat just uses the phrase in the ordinary way, probably quoting Becky. Of course, the final panel may depend on the fact that PiGMH is at least as fictional as God. In Hofstadter and Dennett’s commentary on Smullyan’s “Is God a Taoist?” they say that a remark in the dialogue is “God speaking through the character of Smullyan speaking through the character of God”.

    I’m less certain about the second strip, but it may be connected with the idea of “Don’t think of a pink monkey and you’ll get a thousand dollars.” Manley Wade Wellman’s Silver John warns people against thinking of a blue elephant instead — but only once.

    The third strip just seems to be a riff on the notion that if hanky-panky refers to the activities of a sexual twosome, hankies-panky must refer to a threesome. (You’ll note that like the apocryphal President of the University of Chicago who resigned to take a post as CEO of Woolworth’s, I have gone from ideas to notions.)

  39. @languagehat: You have just learned one if those Internet things: “Dumbing of Age” isn’t funny.

  40. Yep. I don’t like lazy cartooning (that includes xkcd, too.)

  41. Ok, my guess is that DM illustrated “That’s what it’s all about!” conclusion. No matter what conversation is about or how it goes it’s all about hankies-pankies.

  42. David Marjanović says

    I don’t understand any of the strips, but I guess you have to be familiar with the characters, story, etc.

    Well, yes, but that’s all beside the point. The point is the use of hanky-panky as a euphemism for sex (by fundamentalists in Indiana).

    Dumbing of Age is sometimes funny, but it barely tries to be; that’s not the point. I fail to see what’s “lazy” about that. The characters all turn out to be quite complex, if you’re wondering.

    must refer to a threesome

    Yes, as abundantly discussed in the comments.

  43. @David Marjanović: The use of hanky-panky for unsanctioned sex hardly needed examples; that’s just what hanky-panky means. And, depending on context, it need not even be a euphemism. In “Rumpole and the Age of Miracles,” Rumpole tends to refer to the accusations against his client (an Anglican priest, being tried in ecclesiastical court) as “hanky-panky,” much to the disgust of Sam Ballard, the presiding chancellor, who reminds him that the actual charge is “conduct unbecoming a clerk* in Holy Orders.”

    * Clerk as a term for a religious is archaic in English, although the variant form cleric ia not. Nowadays, a clerk is generally someone who handles low-level paperwork, which is known as “clerical” work, in spite of cleric being otherwise limited to the religious sense. Of course, cleric was the term chosen by E. Gary Gygax for a religious spell caster in Dungeons & Dragons, so it is still used in a role-playing game contexts as a term of art. Earlier, Fletcher Pratt had chosen clerk as the term for someone with modest skill in spellcraft in The Well of the Unicorn. There are two major characters in the novel who are spell casters, but only the young and inexperienced protagonist Airar Alvarson (who ends up doing a lot more fighting with a sword than with magic) is known as a “clerk.” The much more powerful wizard Meliboë is referred to by more conventional terms.

  44. The use of hanky-panky for unsanctioned sex hardly needed examples; that’s just what hanky-panky means.

    That was my reaction as well.

  45. John Cowan says

    Yes, as abundantly discussed in the comments.

    There are only a few sites where I read the comments, and I find your comments on most of those.

  46. David Marjanović says

    I’ve never commented there. 🙂

  47. There’s a recent post at Early Sports and Pop Culture History Blog on the history of “hokey pokey”, suggesting that its multiple meanings may all trace back to a nonsense line “Hokee pokee wonkee fum” in a popular song from 1830, “The King of the Cannibal Islands”:

    … “Hokey Pokey” was gibberish, intended to evoke the sound of an exotic, unfamiliar island language. But it quickly came to be used as the name of the fictional King, his island, or minor characters in cannibal-themed plays. It was later used to refer to actual leaders of tropical, Caribbean or Pacific islands. It was also used more generally to refer to any minor potentate, leader, politician or person in position of power, perceived to be of an inferior quality; anyone who presumed to have more power or prestige than they deserved, or anyone treated with more deference or respect in their position than they deserved – an inferior, or cheap imitation of a “real” king.

    See the post for examples of how the phrase, and allusions to the song, remained well-known for decades. It’s not clear whether the faux ice cream was actually named for the phrase, but it could be related via the idea of cheap imitation.

    The connection from ice cream carts to trash-collectors’ carts (as mentioned in the comment from zamboni) was drawn in the Boston Globe in 1891:

    When the little push carts first appeared some sarcastic city father dubbed them “hokey-pokey” carts, on account of their close resemblance to the familiar ice-cream dispenser which our Italian fellow-citizens wheel around in summer, and from which they retail rainbow-colored cakes of cream.

    So that link at least seems pretty well founded, even if the further derivation is uncertain.

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