Old Man Yells at Cloud

What Scalia’s ‘Jiggery-Pokery’ Means

In his dissenting rant against Thursday’s Burwell decision, Justice Scalia called the whole thing ‘jiggery-pokery.’ Here’s what that particularly colorful turn-of-phrase actually means.

06.26.15 1:27 AM ET

In his written dissent to the Supreme Court's majority decision to let Obamacare live, Justice Antonin Scalia made a number of odd claims, like the court's ruling meant that "words no longer have meaning." But it was his decision to employ a little-used British phrase that elevated the legal document to self-parody. 

"The Court's next bit of interpretive jiggery-pokery involves other parts of the Act that purportedly presuppose the availability of tax credits on both federal and state exchanges," Scalia wrote.


It means a manipulative or slyly dishonest act – synonyms include “trickery” or “hocus-pocus”. According to Merriam-Webster, the word is thought to stem from the Scottish phrase joukery-pawkery, jock being "cheat" or "dodge" and pawk being to "trick." 

Jiggery-pokery as Scalia used it had previously been thought to date back to the 1890s. 

However Ammon Shea, author of "Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation," notes that new research has discovered its earliest use dates back to 1845, in an article about agriculture law in the Berkshire Chronicle, an English newspaper. It read "…under present law, the averages were made up so faithfully and fairly as to prevent any jiggery-pokery." 

A 1994 British TV movie, starring Jaye Davidson of The Crying Game and Stargate fame, used the phrase for its title. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry says "Jiggery pokery!" as part of a spell. "Hocus pocus – squiggly wiggly –." And in 2009, the Irish music group The Duckworth Lewis Method released a song called "Jiggery Pokery" about a 1993 cricket tournament. 

The Daily Beast's Tim Teeman, who is British, says he is pleased that America can finally enjoy jiggery-pokery, thanks to Scalia. Teeman also notes that the phrase is frequently used in headlines in publications like The Register: "Brace yourselves: Facebook plans more jiggery pokery."

This is not, of course, the first time Scalia has raised eyebrows with his word choice. In 2013, in his dissent to the court striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, Scalia dismissed the decision as "legalistic argle-bargle." 

Not necessarily related, but perhaps important to know that also in 2013, Scalia admitted to New York Magazine's Jennifer Senior that he believes in the devil. 

"In the Gospels, the Devil is doing all sorts of things," Scalia said. "He's making pigs run off cliffs, he's possessing people and whatnot. And that doesn't happen very much anymore…It's because he's smart." 

And now we know: he hates the devil because he really hates jiggery-pokery.