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Olly olly oxen free

July 31, 2011

Old Kingdom Egyptian alabaster jar

Image Credit: Medusa Ancient Art Gallery

Chaucer was the first English author to use the word alabaster: in the Knight’s Tale (1386) he writes of ‘alabaster white and red coral’. It comes, via Old French and Latin, from Greek alábast(r)os, which may be of Egyptian origin. Scottish English used the variant from alabast until the 16th century (indeed, this may predate alabaster by a few years); and from the 16th to the 17th century the word was usually spelled alablaster, apparently owing to confusion with arblaster ‘crossbowman’.

The use of alabaster for making marbles (of the sort used in children’s games) gave rise to the abbreviation alley, ally ‘marble’ in the early 18th century.

Olly olly oxen free (and variants: olly-olly-ee, ally ally in free) is a catchphrase used in such children’s games as hide and seek to indicate that players who are hiding can come out into the open without losing the game. It is thought to derive from the phrase “All ye, all ye ‘outs’ in free;” in other words: all who are “out” may come in without penalty. However, this may not be the etymology at all–“Olly olly oxen free” is suspiciously close to the German phrase “Alle, alle auch sind frei,” meaning “everyone, everyone is also free.”

The phrase can also be used to coordinate hidden players in the game kick the can, in which a group of people hide within a given radius and a “seeker” is left to guard a can filled with rocks. The seeker has to try to find the “hiders” without allowing them to sneak in and kick the can. In many areas the phrase used is “All-y all-y in come free” which is a way to tell the remainder of hidden players that it is time to regroup in order to restart the game. The phrase is announced by a hider who successfully sneaks in and kicks the can. ~ Sourced Wikipedia

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