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WORDBIRTH, a column by Jack Karasch

The word HOAX comes to us from the phrase "hocus pocus."

This addition to our language has no real meaning or legitimate word root. In fact "hocus pocus" is a made-up term itself. Its originators were magicians who thought it sounded like Latin, and so they chanted the words while they worked their tricks. They hoped this made them sound all the more mysterious.

Hoax, then, was taken from this pseudo-Latin term and came to mean a mischievous trick of some kind. The word entered our language in 1796.

One of the most famous astronomical hoaxes of all time was perpetrated in 1835 by a writer of the New York Sun, at that time a scant four page journal. A series of articles ran with titles like: "Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made By Sir John Herschel At The Cape Of Good Hope."

The writer, Richard Adams Locke, had Americans duped for months with his tales of an incredible 7-ton telescope invented by the renowned British astronomer, Herschel.

Adams stated that the instrument could magnify objects 42,000 times, so that plant and animal life forms could be clearly seen on the moon.

According to Locke, there were herds of hairy beasts, something like bison, roaming there, but with hairy flaps over their eyes to block out extreme light. Another beast was blue and sported a single horn. One amphibious creature rolled across pebbly beaches.

Not all there was said to be exotic, though. Pelicans, cranes, and bears were plentiful.

Mountains were almost perfect pyramids made of amethyst. There was a lake 266 miles long.

The last article claimed a large-winged creature walked erectly. It sounded suspiciously like an angel.

One of the few who disbelieved these seemingly scientific and highly detailed descriptions was Edgar Alien Poe. Poe should know. But no one listened to him.

The point is, until Sir John Herschel got wind of the hoax and exposed it, the stories were taken for gospel.

Circulation for the tiny New York Sun had overnight erupted tenfold, from two thousand, to approximately twenty thousand.

Get in touch with Jack Karasch at jackarasch@juno.com The next word is: Minstrel Show
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