When summer comes or charity fund-raising is involved, English pub games often veer from mere eccentricity towards total lunacy. These are the days of marrow dangling, passing the splod, Portuguese sardine racing, conger cuddling, rhubarb thrashing, and dwile flonking.
The game is officially played by two teams of twelve players, though there is great flexibility in numbers (the terminology and rules also vary from place to place). The fielding team gathers in a circle, called a girter, enclosing a member of the other team, the flonker. He holds a broom handle (usually called the driveller), on top of which is a beer-soaked rag, the dwile or dwyle.
At a signal, the girter dances around the flonker in a circle. He must flick (or flonk) the dwile with the driveller so it hits a girter team member. His score depends on which part of the body he hits — the usual scoring is three points for a hit on the head (a wanton), two for a hit on the body, (a marther), and just one for a leg strike (a ripple). If after two shots the flonker hasn’t scored he is swadged, or potted, which means he has to drink a quantity of beer from a chamber pot within a given time. After all the members of one team have flonked, the other team is put in. The winner is the team with the most points after two innings, usually the one with more members still upright.
There are two schools of thought about its origins. Some say it’s a traditional game that’s known from medieval times, others that it was invented by a group of Suffolk printing apprentices in 1966. The information that we have strongly supports the latter thesis. The first reference to the game that researchers at the Oxford English Dictionary have discovered is in the Beccles and Bungay Journal of Suffolk for June 1966, in reference to a game involving a team from Richard Clay (The Chaucer Press) of Bungay. Among the group that “evolved” the rules of the game were George High, George Davis, Graham Roberts, Bob Devereux and Andrew Leverett, all apprentices either at Richard Clay or at another printers, William Clowes in Beccles, who met weekly on courses at the Technical College in Norwich. Graham Roberts recalls, “We used to sit down during lunch breaks in between rows of type cases and discuss amendments to the rules.”
Dwile is a real word: an old Suffolk dialect term for a dishcloth; dweil, said the same way, is the Dutch word for a floorcloth, or in defunct slang a drunkard. There were links between parts of East Anglia and the Netherlands, especially in the eighteenth century, and it is conceivable that the Suffolk dialect word was borrowed from Dutch.
Several other terms seem to be fanciful derivations of obsolete or rare words: girter looks as though it comes from gird, a strap or band; flonk could be based on flong, the name in printing for a paper mould used to create an impression of type; swadge might be another form of the obsolete swage, to pacify or appease, from the same origin as the more common assuage. The rest seem to have been invented.
[I’m indebted to the staff of the OED for making available their research into this expression and to Graham Roberts for his recollections.]