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Q From Garry Vass: I’m an American working in London. While watching some children play tag in a playground, I noticed that several of them, from time to time, would cross their fingers over their heads and shout something like vanitz. This seemed to signify that they were out of the game temporarily. Do you have an idea what this word was?

A That’s a sharp observation of a bit of children’s language. It means just what you say, to call for a pause or truce in a game. It’s variously spelt, as fainites, faynits, or fains, all of which are a slight corruption, or a running-together, of fain I, or fain it. In fact, it’s often said as though it’s spelt “fain-its”. The word is school slang dating from at least the 1870s, but it was a dialect term earlier still. It’s a form of fend, which at one time had a meaning of “to forbid”. Another version current last century was fen, often said as ven.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 7 Nov. 1998

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 7 November 1998.