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shameless pleading





Ollie, Ollie, Oxen Free

Is it safe?

Dear Word Detective: Don’t know if I’m spelling this correctly, but I’d like to know the origin of the “Ollie, Ollie, Oxen Free” shouted by children playing the ancient game of tag. — Carol.

Ah yes, the ancient game of tag. Isn’t there an iPhone app for that now? Apparently there’s now one for solving Sudoku puzzles. You’ll notice that I didn’t say for “playing” Sudoku. No, with this “app,” you just point your phone’s camera at the puzzle and it uses artificial intelligence to solve it for you. Whee! Incidentally, the American Dialect Society (ADS), the linguists and scholars who study and document American English as it is actually spoken, voted at their annual meeting this month to declare “app” (short for “application,” a software program that runs on a computer, telephone, etc.) as the ADS Word of the Year for 2010. Runners-up included “nom” (“Onomatopoetic form connoting eating, especially pleasurably”), “junk” in a number of senses, “Wikileaks,” and “trend” as a verb. “Refudiate” won the “Most Unnecessary” category hands down.

I was never a big fan of playing “Tag” because I was a small, weedy child and consequently spent a disproportionate amount of time being “It.” “Hide and Seek,” where children hide from the child designated “It,” at least gave me the opportunity to get some reading done behind the couch. It’s when “It” finds one of the hiders, of course, that the found child becomes “It” and the game restarts. “Ollie ollie oxen free” is traditionally shouted at this point by the old “It” to let the other players know that they should emerge from their hiding places and start the game over. So the “Ollie” shout is really from Hide and Seek, not Tag.

“Ollie ollie oxen free” is part of what Iona and Peter Opie, in their wonderful book “The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren” (Oxford University Press, 1959), called “the code of oral legislation” among children. The Opies studied and interviewed children in England, Scotland and Ireland just after World War II, meticulously documenting the customs and vocabulary of their rituals, games, and traditions. What they found was a rich culture that in some cases dated back to the Middle Ages and originated in adult customs at that time. For instance, a child in 20th century England would say “barley” to gain temporary respite from a schoolyard fight, a term that comes from the custom of Medieval knights offering their opponent the opportunity to “parley” or “parlez” (French for “talk”), i.e., ask for mercy. Thus childhood, at the time the Opies studied it, had become a linguistic museum of British history. Today, as we say today, probably not so much.

In the case of “Ollie ollie oxen free” and its many variants, we have a mutated form of the original “all clear” signal. This was probably something like “All’s out come in free” or “All ye out come in free,” meaning that anyone still hiding (“out”) can now come back into the group without fear (“free”) of being tagged “It.” Since the game “Hide and Seek” itself is at least four centuries old, there’s been plenty of time for that original phrase to be filtered through small ears clogged with dirt and come out almost unrecognizable.

The “Ollie” of “Ollie ollie oxen free” is almost certainly the “All ye” reshaped to take the form of “Ollie,” short for the proper name “Oliver.” The “oxen” is classic folk etymology, where a word or words that sound unfamiliar to the listener (“come in,” in this case), especially when slurred, are given the form of a more familiar word (“oxen”). Of course, many British customs have jumped the pond to the US and Canada, and “Ollie ollie oxen free” is well known in America, often with regional variations. In areas of the Midwest settled by immigrants from Norway, for instance, one popular form is “Ole Ole Olsen’s free.”

Sadly, I should probably say “was,” because that form was documented by the Dictionary of American Regional English back in the 1960s. You don’t have to be a geezer to see that the loss of the native culture of childhood to cable TV, videogames and their ilk represents the severing of a irreplaceable link between everyday life today and life centuries ago. The anarchic play of unsupervised kids was, in a real sense, steeped in the culture, from chivalry to superstition, of their great-great-great-and-beyond-grandparents. Kids grew up, but the ancient river of childhood flowed on to greet each new generation. But I’m sure that soon we’ll have an app to replace that. Nom nom.

68 comments to Ollie, Ollie, Oxen Free

  • Shari44

    I was in an contentious conversation with my x husband where we vehemently disagreed and I shouted to him “Ollie Ollie uxen free” – he didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. I asked him if her ever played hide and seek when a kid, which he hadn’t, never played child games. So after explaining that to him, the tone of the conversation dwindled never getting what I trying to say – like- I give up. I am now 74 yrs and remember these things from time to time being of Irish decent.

  • HotRod

    Fantastic comments! Brings back lots of fun memories. I grew up in Northwest Indiana in the 80’s and remember saying olly olly oxen free. All of the neighborhood kids said it but I don’t think any of us really knew what it meant. I do remember a lot of variety of slang and phrases within close proximity to where I lived. For example: I might say “toss” for throw but the next county people might say “chuck” for throw. Quite interesting to see how the words and phrases evolve historically and geographically.

  • Obie

    Thank you so much. This brought back so many good memories. I guess I’m showing my age, I’ll be seventy-four this year. Thanks again.

  • Tica

    Growing up in the Bottoms of Gary, Indiana, the 40’s, Negro at the time, we had such fun, running and singing, almost yodeling, “Olly, Olly, oxen free, new cucumber”. I have no idea where that came from. Not a care in the world, so much fun!!!

  • Victoria Crisman

    I grew up in Connecticut and we said “Ollie Ollie Oxen Free, get off my father’s apple tree.”

    I think the last bit about the apple tree was exclusive to my neighborhood, which had apple trees in a field.

    This is a wonderful thread.

  • Jason

    I don’t even know how I ended up here, but anyway,
    I was born in 1964 and we always said “ollie ollie Oxen Free. Out spell O U T !”
    I still remember playing at night with my friends, probably until 10pm.
    What a wonderful time to be children, so many beautiful memories.
    I am so glad I grew up back then and not now….

  • DS

    Late 60s & early 70s, California (Bay Area): we shouted Ollie Ollie Oxen Free, up a tree, down a tree, in a tree, through a tree, around a tree, below a tree, above a tree (or as many tree variations as the moment inspired), then concluding with a resounding repeat of: Ollie Ollie Oxen Free! A tree was typically our home-base to be tagged after being found and having to run at top speed to that safety spot. We had plenty of fabulous oak trees plus groves of redwoods and also pine or fruit trees in some locations. My dad taught us to play Sardines: an especially good choice around dusk. Or indoors during a power outage. And oh so much quieter, less boisterous: that’s probably why a parent bothered to teach his kids a children’s game! Sardines meant less commotion and a chance to practice a different skill-set.

  • NT Lona

    The ‘oxen’ is really from the “outs-in” (sounds like) that you had mentioned earlier in another paragraph, e.g., “All ye outs, in, free, free, free” ~ well, we always said ‘free’ three times, so the far-away’ers could hear correctly, right?

  • StillCrazy

    I looked up “Ollie, Ollie Entry, New Cucumber” trying to discover its origin. Why? I don’t know, just popped into my head and Googled it! I was 81 y/o yesterday and growing up in Boston area, in the 1940’s playing hide and seek, if you were “it” and some other kid in the neighborhood wanted to join the game, he became automatically “it”. So to restart the game we’d call out “Ollie, Ollie Entry, New Cucumber”, to which everyone came out from hiding to meet the new player. It’s interesting to see so many variations all meaning the same thing and used in the same or similar childhood games. Do kids these days talk to one another face to face?

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