Hokey: Characterized by hokum; sentimental; mawkish; overly contrived, especially to win popular opinion or support; phony. In early citations, sometimes spelled hoky or hokie.
'Hokey" is now a positive political standard: D and R operatives thought HRC's rollout was clever for being hokey. http://t.co/RSVwE6isOc— Elizabeth Drew (@ElizabethDrewOH) April 15, 2015
The Politico story that Drew—a veteran political journalist and contributor to the New York Review of Books—links to does not contain a single mention of hokey. It does, however, quote a number of “GOP insiders” who called Hillary Clinton’s campaign-announcement video “contrived” and “phony”—and also “savvy” and “effective.”
Drew’s tweet wasn’t the first linkage of hokey with Hillary Rodham Clinton. In 1995, during Bill Clinton’s first term, Washington Post reporter David Maraniss—who would go on to publish biographies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—wrote about Ms. Clinton’s “contradictory personality.” Her “predominantly female” staffers “adore” her, he wrote:
The notion that she is cold and self-righteous, they say, is utterly foreign to their experience with her. When she does something to raise their eyebrows, it is more likely with her hokey form of humor, often expressed in simple rhyming schemes that Maggie Williams, her chief of staff, says come from "another era, if not another century." It is not unusual for Hillary Clinton to end a conversation with a staff member by uttering, "Okey-dokey, artichokey." To her scheduler, Patty Solis, she has been heard to say, "Miss Patty, you're as cute as a bug in a rug today."
The OED classifies hokey as “originally U.S”; the dictionary’s earliest citation is from a New York Times article, “War Film Quality,” published on August 19, 1945:
Equally a part of America, I am afraid, are the dull films, the tasteless, hoky confections that public taste ought to repudiate but frequently welcomes.
But for hoky to appear without a definition—or quotation marks to set it apart—suggests that the word had already been in circulation for some time. The OED traces the adjective to a verb, hoke (or hoke up), a bit of theatrical slang meaning “to infuse with hokum.” (Hokum is believed to be a blend of hocus-pocus—a mock-Latin invocation used by magicians since the 1620s—and bunkum, a mid-19th century Americanism that means “nonsense.” Bunkum was originally spelled Buncombe, after a county in North Carolina.) The OED’s earliest citation for to hoke is dated 1935, but the Random House Dictionary of American Slang (RHDAS) gives a 1925 citation from the Saturday Evening Post: “Among the more outspoken of the profession the process is called hoking it up.” RHDAS also antedates the OED’s entry for hokey with this 1927 citation from Variety: “This mixed couple have the makings of a good hokey act.”
Hocus-pocus gave us more than hokum and hokey: it’s also believed to be the source of hoax (earliest citations: around 1800) and hokey-pokey, which Americans, at least those of a certain age, know as the name* of a dance (“a tuneless stomp that is now sweeping the U.C.L.A. campus”—Life magazine, November 27, 1950) that originated in England during World War II.
Before hokey-pokey was a dance, it was cheap material (1847), given the name because of it attempted to “hoke the buyer.” In the 1880s the term became attached to cheap ice cream sold by street vendors; according to Etymonline, in Philadelphia, “and perhaps other places,” it meant shaved ice with artificial flavoring. World Wide Words tells us that hokey-pokey ice cream originated in the UK in 1884 and was first recorded in the eastern US in 1886. According to one theory, this hokey-pokey came from Italian street vendors: Gelati, ecco un poco! (“ice cream, here’s a little!”) or O, che poco (“oh, how little”—little money, or cheap).
For another example of mock-Latin, see my post on mumpsimus (“stubborn insistence on incorrect usage”).
* It wasn’t until I began researching this post that I learned that in Canada and Britain the dance is called the hokey-cokey. According to one story, pokey was changed to cokey because “cokey” was Canadian slang for “crazy.”