Sunday, 13 May 2007


The OED says this is an arbitrary formation, probably related to hocus-pocus, hoky-poky. Other, more entertaining, suggestions are that it is from hokkani boro or hakk'ni panki, a term in the Romany language meaning the great trick, or from the Latin Mass: Hanc est meam panem, "this is my bread", used for anything magical or not understood, or even a duplication of hanky, referring to the way a conjuror flourishes a handkerchief to deceive the eye.

Anyway, the word in its first meaning, trickery or double-dealing, can be traced back to 1841, while in its second meaning, which the OED prissily defines as sexual activity or dalliance, esp. of a surreptitious nature, it did not appear in print until 1939, and then in a quotation from G B Shaw!

All this is rather dull, except to rabid etymologists, but here is something much more exciting:

Everyone who has come into contact with Japanese people knows that, to them, using a hanky in their presence is the equivalent of, well, think of the nastiest thing you have ever seen anyone doing in public. No need to learn all about chopsticks and the poisonous fugu fish, all you must remember while in Japan is: never let anyone see you blow your nose. No-one will look appalled if you do, they are much too polite, but you should be aware that in their minds will be the thought: I wonder how many of his other bodily secretions he wraps up in a cloth and puts in his pocket?

But, you may ask, how do the Japanese cope with occasional nasal catarrh? The answer is that they have two methods of dealing with it when it is just not possible to leave the room: both of them are, to our mind, utterly disgusting and I shall not describe them.

On the other hand, the device illustrated here (as No 114 in my Practical Hats series) is rather appealing and would be useful for managing a really heavy cold, but seems somewhat indiscreet for Japanese taste; perhaps they manufacture it only for export.

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