ollie ollie oxen free …
ollie ollie oxen free
Dave Schreiber writes:
What’s the meaning and origin of the phrase “ollie ollie oxen free”? I occasionally hear references to it as a phrase spoken by children, but I never used it or heard it when I was growing up (I was born in 1971 and grew up in San Jose, California).
Ollie ollie oxen free is one of about a bajillion variants (I know–I counted) of a phrase used in various children’s games. As we have seen, children’s language and folklore hasn’t been as thoroughly studied as one would like, but in this case, researchers have tracked down a huge number of forms.
The phrase is used in a variety of children’s chasing games, especially hide-and-(go-)seek. The rough form of this game is that a player (called “it”) gives other players a chance to hide, and then tries to find them. When “it” finds the first hider, he calls out some phrase indicating that the other players are “safe” to return “home,” at which point the person “it” found will succeed him as “it.”
The original form of the phrase was something like all in free or all’s out come in free, both standing for something like all who are out can come in free. These phrases got modified to all-ee all-ee (all) in free or all-ee all-ee out(s) in free; the -ee is added, and the all is repeated, for audibility and rhythm.
From here the number of variants takes off, and we start seeing folk etymologies in various forms. The most common of these has oxen replacing out(s) in, giving all-ee all-ee oxen free; with the all-ee reinterpreted as the name Ollie, we arrive at your phrase, which, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English, is especially common in California. Norwegian settlement areas have Ole Ole Olsen’s free. For the out(s) in phrase, we also see ocean, oxford, ax in, awk in, and even oops all in.
This multiplicity of examples demonstrates the unsurprising fact that young children often have little idea what phrases like this mean, and transmute them into variants that involve more familiar terms, losing the original meaning in the process. It’s difficult to determine early dates for these expressions–most of them weren’t collected until the 1950s and later–but based on recollections of the games, it seems that they were in common use by the 1920s, and probably earlier (home free is found in print in the 1890s, and the game hide-and-seek is at least four centuries old).