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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.

29 comments to Ollie, Ollie, Oxen Free

  • Larry Israel

    When I was a kid back in the 1940′s (New York City) we said “Home Free All”. I never heard of “Ollie Ollie Oxen Free” until my kids were playing (Allentown, Pa.) thirty years later.

  • gordon

    I heard it originated as “calling all the outs in free” and eventually morphed into “ollie ollie oxen free”

  • CAROLE MUSGRAVE

    I HEARD IT COME FROM OLDEN TIMES WHEN IT WAS, ALL IN ALL IN URCHINS FREE. URCHINS BEING KIDS

  • I’m 52 and a half years old, and ollie, ollie, oxen free is what I said as a child.

  • Ron Grimes

    Well, here’s my twist on this saying. This year, I decided to learn German, and I’m currently at level 4 of the German Rosetta Stone course. As you may know, English is a Germanic language, and so many of our words sound very close. I was thinking the other day about the origin of Ollie Ollie oxen free, and I noticed how this could easily have been the poor attempts of English speaking children to imitate their German speaking friends shouting, “Alle alle auch sind frei.”, which means All, All are free.

  • Ron Grimes

    Btw, punch that German phrase into Google translate and then click the speak icon in the lower right of the translation box, and see if you can hear the similarity. See http://translate.google.com/?hl=en&tab=wT#auto/en/alle%20alle%20auch%20sind%20frei

  • Ron

    Of course, another German phrase that’s possible is changing auch to such, as in “Alle alle euch sind frei”, which would render “All, you all are free.” Euch is you and auch is also.

    • Dennis

      This makes most sense and sounds very similar. ‘euch’ in german is pronounced ‘oik ‘ and ‘sind’ is ‘zind ‘ so combined they sound like ‘oikzin’ which sounds to me really close to ‘oxen’ with a boston accent.

  • MarkB

    I seem to recall ‘ollie ollie entry,’ while my father told me he used ‘oxen free.’ I’m surprised to see no mention of ‘new cucumber’ here. Typically, a boy would should ‘ollie ollie entry/oxen free, new cucumber!’ This was notice that a new person was joining the game. This was in Boston during the 1960s. It’s been suggested that ‘new cucumber’ was a play on ‘new comer,’ as in new person joining the game.

    I have to add that when I was using these words, it never occurred to me that they could be spelled out. Since they were only used orally, there was no reason for them to be tied down to a particular literary form. I think that at the time I would have transliterated ‘ally-ally,’ as in ‘all of you.’ The ‘ollie’ spelling I see now certainly makes less sense than my original assumption.

    It is sad to see that this sort of thing seems to be disappearing. Generations of children passed these cultural tidbits down to each other, without schooling or parents being involved. Now? I doubt hide and seek has been played in my old Boston neighborhood in decades.

    • lorla bene

      this 76 yr grandma definitely remembers olly olly ocean free new cucumber…..don’t know why we used “ocean” instead of “oxen”, but we had fun…. I’m also surprised not too much mention of “new cucumber”….

  • Joe

    Never heard of cucumber, but we called out “Ally, ally in come free”. I guess it was pretty clean cut in St. Louis in the 70′s.

  • Karen

    I grew up in the 1950′s and we would play hide and seek and use the term “ollie, ollie, oxen free”. I grew up on the west coast

  • Jonathan

    Does anybody know of the version, “Ollie, Ollie home come free!”. That’s what I used when I was little in the New York/Connecticut area. I am using it in a show (I am a comedian/singer/songwriter) and I’d like to use 1. a version that people in New York/Connecticut would recognize, and 2. another version that people in Scotland would recognize.

    Thanks so much!

  • Jaime

    I was born in 1985 and grew up (mostly) in Sharon, PA (on the OH) border. My friends and I always said Olly Olly oxen free. In never even occurred to that there may other variations until I decided to look the phrase up. I also lived in FL and IN growing up, and I can’t remember if my friends used the phrase in either of those places. I know it was common in PA, though.

  • Diana P

    I always thought it was from “All ye! All ye! All’s in free” and when I was a kid we pronounced it “Allie! Allie! Aoughts in free”. I was in California but my parents were from Kansas.

  • We played Hide & Seek games until dark in Southern CA. We called “Olly Olly Oxen Free Free Free”. This was late 40s/early 50s. I’m now teaching the phrase to my grandchildren who don’t seem to mind that grandma is kind of slow getting to base (they always win!). But they love yelling out this phrase.

  • I’m seventy one and as children we said “Ollie Ollie oxen free!” I don’t know what made me think of it today but that is what made me look it up. I found it interesting, the many variations of it from around the world. The German rendition made a lot of sense. It’s funny how a lot of things came from the old country. I think we’re all hiding from something, wishing someone would free us up from those burdens we somethimes harbor. There’s always a reason when things come to mind. How blessed we are to have the internet, to free us from so many unanswered questions.So I wish you all, “Ollie Ollie oxen free.” God Bless.

  • Larry Bailey

    I’am 51 and grew up in upstate NY. We would always yell Ollie Ollie Homefree when you managed to get back to home base without being tagged, while the seeker was out looking for other hiders. Our games never ended until either everybody made it to homebase or where tagged out trying to get to homebase. Why would you give a free pass and stop the game before it was over??? Weird!

  • Pat

    I spent my elementary school years in suburban St. Louis during the ’50s. We used the “in come free” version (see “Joe” above).

  • Kris

    Back in the 1950′s, we used Ollie, Ollie, Oxen. Oxen Free. Who don’t come, it will be.

  • Susan

    I’m 60 and grew up downstate Illinois. We said “ally, ally oxen free-o”. Don’t know why the free-o unless one of us was trying to say free-er and had a speech impediment! We grew up on a farm and there were 7 of us kids, so lots of room and places to play hide and seek.

  • Bettina Gray

    When I was the youngest of many cousins and was always’it’ in ‘Hide and Seek’ the call in the dark “ally,ally, outs in free” was wonderful!

  • My dog Is a boxer and we named him Ollie and his nick name is “Ollie Ollie oxen free”

  • Larry

    I grew up on the west coast during the 1950′s and we used to say ollie, ollie all in free, free, free. I guess it didn’t matter what you said or how you said it, we all meant the same thing.

  • Melissa

    I grew up in Australia in the 1970′s and we said this phrase also.
    My daughter who is 10 was saying it yesterday and the reason as to why I am on here reading it’s origin.
    I have really enjoyed reading all these comments, it makes me a little nostalgic.
    I wish the internet hadn’t replaced a lot of the great childhood games with apps.
    I am now going to try and teach my daughter the great outdoor games we played until dark in the beautiful Australian summers.

  • Kitty

    I’m 55 and the reason I’m even at this site was because I was researching Olly Olly Oxen Free as a title for a poem I’m writing.It seems many of us have similar but different memories but we all seem to have a fond remembrance of days gone by.

    Blessings! From a child at heart…

  • I am 51 and grew up in Arkansas and Texas and we used the phrase “Ollie Ollie oxen free”

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