Its origin is open to dispute, though we know the term was first applied to ice cream in Britain. Its sellers from handcarts, the hokey-pokey men, were invariably Italians who had fled poverty in their own country. The term’s history matches their emigration — it was recorded in the UK in 1884 and in the eastern US in 1886.
A report appeared in The Daily News of Frederick, Maryland, in July 1887:
The custom of eating ice-cream in England is so popular that even the dirty arabs of the street are bound to have their ‘penny wipe,’ as they call it, which consists of a dab of the refreshing delicacy on a piece of questionably clean paper. This mode of retailing ices has crept into New York and Chicago, and is possibly an humble offshoot of the Anglomania now so prevalent throughout the United States. Somewhat similar to this method of selling ices on the street is the custom now in vogue in the cities, and used to be in Frederick, of retailing the ‘poor relation’ of ice cream known as Hokey Pokey, by the boys with hand carts.
It’s commonly said that the name of the comestible comes from the cry of the sellers, either Gelati, ecco un poco! (“ice cream, here’s a little!”) or O che poco! (“O how little!”, meaning it was cheap rather than insufficient in quantity — its price was a penny, both in Britain and the US, and led to the cry Hokey-pokey, penny a lump!). We can’t be sure this is where the name came from, but the sudden appearance of the same term within such a narrow space of time 3000 miles apart might suggest that it was brought by the Italians themselves.
But there’s another school of thought (there so often is, you may have noticed). Hokey-pokey already had another meaning, that of deception, cheating or underhand activity, first noted in the UK by James Halliwell-Phillipps in 1847. It might have been given to the inferior cornstarch-and-milk product of some of the less reputable early street sellers in Britain and then followed them across the ocean, though the term in the deceit sense was already known in the US.
We are fairly sure that the deception sense comes from the older hocus-pocus as the name for a conjuror or juggler, perhaps the one that Thomas Ady described in A Candle in the Dark in 1656 who used the incantation “Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo” (though often said, there’s no good evidence that hocus-pocus is a parody of the Latin phrase “hoc est enim corpus meum” from the Catholic Eucharist). In the next century, hocus-pocus became a common term for conjuring, jugglery or sleight of hand, and so developed the idea of trickery or deception.
Incidentally, the name of the song-cum-dance usually known in the US as the hokey-pokey (“You put your right foot in, you put your right foot out”) and elsewhere as the hokey-cokey, has no obvious direct link with any of these senses. Its history is bedevilled by accusations of plagiarism, but the original seems to have been that composed by Jimmy Kennedy in the UK in 1942, which was referred to during the War years variously as the cokey-cokey, the okey-cokey and the hokey-cokey. The US version under the name hokey-pokey is usually attributed to Larry LaPrise in 1949.
Following the first appearance of this item, messages from the other side of the globe told that the variety of ice cream sold under that name in New Zealand, consisting of vanilla ice cream with pieces of crunchy honeycomb toffee in it, is the second most popular flavour in the country. Its name might be an allusion to the hokey-pokey ice cream sold in the UK, though how it came to refer to a type of toffee is unclear, but there are New Zealand examples on record with that sense back to 1899, well inside the era of the hokey-pokey men.