The classic pub game, darts is the ultimate non-sportsman’s sport — you don’t need any special clothing and little equipment (a set of darts is a good idea, but pubs lend those out), and you don’t need to be fit (the aptitude of players often appears to be in direct proportion to the size of their beer guts). All you have to remember is to count back from 501, end on a double, and avoid putting your toes over the oche.
Oche, for the line behind which darts players stand when throwing, is the classic bit of darts jargon, even more obscure and basic than double top for a double twenty, bag o’ nuts for a score of 45 (don’t ask where it comes from because I don’t know), Shanghai for a score made up of a single, treble and double in that order of the same number, usually 20 when you need 120 to end a game (ditto), mugs away as an invitation to the losing player to start the next round, or mad house for a double one (because getting it can drive you crazy).
Oche is pronounced like hockey without the initial h. Attempts are sometimes made to derive it from an obsolete word meaning to chop off, from Old French ochen to cut a deep notch in something, though the link with darts is obscure. Eric Partridge preferred an origin in hoggins line, for no good reason that one may discern. However, the earliest written examples — from the 1930s — are all spelled hockey and the oche form didn’t become standard until the late 1970s.
But why hockey? One story holds that it’s from the name of a West Country brewery, S Hockey and Sons, whose crates were just the right size with which to mark out the throwing distance. That’s so unlikely as to be merely funny.
After this piece first appeared, Peter Brooke e-mailed to suggest that the word might well come from the Victorian hockey-dockies for shoes. This is an elaboration of hock-dock, using hock as a slang term for the foot. A hock-dock might be a place where one docks one’s hocks, that is, places one’s feet, but is probably a nonsense reduplication.