Q From Matt J. Fuller, Cincinnati, USA: I am trying to find the etymology and correct spelling of the term Olly olly in-come-free, used in children’s games to signal that the game is over or that the main player has given up hope of winning. Help would be appreciated.
A I’m not sure that there is a “correct” spelling of the phrase. There are dozens of different forms of it, known to children all over North America at various times. The one I’ve come across is ollie ollie oxen free, but that may not be the most common form.
Children’s sayings were hardly recorded until the 1950s, and they are very variable. That’s because they’ve been passed down orally from one generation to the next, with no adult intervention or correction.
One guess is that the original was something like “all in free” for “all who are out can come in free”, to indicate that the person who is “it” in the game of hide-and-seek has caught somebody to become the new “it”, and so everybody else can come out of hiding without the risk of being caught.
Oral transmission has garbled this in fascinating ways, with all in, for example, being translated by a series of mishearings to the name Ollie (short for Oliver, once more common than it is now). And oxen may have come from an intermediate form out’s in free — other recorded versions are awk in, Oxford, and ocean.
Various subscribers remember versions that suggest the first part of the catch was once something like “all of you”. Charles Wilson wrote: “When I was growing up in the American South we actually said, ‘All ye all ye outs in free’ when playing hide-and-seek (although we called it ‘hide-and-go-seek’)”.
The more recent ollie for a successful jump in skateboarding is probably unconnected.
[I’m grateful to Jesse Sheidlower for his reply to a question posed to Jesse’s Word of the Day, taken from his book of the same name.]