Looking for a confirmation to a game phrase

Posted by Bruce Kahl on April 20, 2000

In Reply to: Looking for a confirmation to a game phrase posted by joeyanita on April 20, 2000

: When playing hide and go seek, the phrase:
: ollie ollie oxen free
: is said. I am not sure if the phrase should read:
: all ye all ye all come free?
: Any commments?

Lots and lots of theories from lots and lots of sites. Most from Jesse at Random House:

1. The phrase is used in a variety of children's chasing games, especially hide-and-(go-)seek. The rough form of this game is that a player (called "it") gives other players a chance to hide, and then tries to find them. When "it" finds the first hider, he calls out some phrase indicating that the other players are "safe" to return "home," at which point the person "it" found will succeed him as "it."
The original form of the phrase was something like all in free or all's out come in free, both standing for something like all who are out can come in free. These phrases got modified to all-ee all-ee (all) in free or all-ee all-ee out(s) in free; the -ee is added, and the all is repeated, for audibility and rhythm.
From here the number of variants takes off, and we start seeing folk etymologies in various forms. The most common of these has oxen replacing out(s) in, giving all-ee all-ee oxen free; with the all-ee reinterpreted as the name Ollie, we arrive at your phrase, which, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English, is especially common in California. Norwegian settlement areas have Ole Ole Olsen's free. For the out(s) in phrase, we also see ocean, oxford, ax in, awk in, and even oops all in.

2. 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)".

3. Its root seems to be an English-Norman French-Dutch/German concoction: "Alles, Alles, in kommen frei"or "Oyez, oyez, in kommen frei!"
"Allez, allez" was a Norman addition to the English language, pronounced "ollie, ollie" and sometimes written "oyez, oyez" and meaning "everyone." "In kommen frei" was a phrase popular in Dutch/German New York and Pennsylvania, where many Zonians came from, meaning "come in free."

This multiplicity of examples demonstrates the unsurprising fact that young children often have little idea what phrases like this mean, and transmute them into variants that involve more familiar terms, losing the original meaning in the process. It's difficult to determine early dates for these expressions--most of them weren't collected until the 1950s and later--but based on recollections of the games, it seems that they were in common use by the 1920s, and probably earlier (home free is found in print in the 1890s, and the game hide-and-seek is at least four centuries old).