Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Ollie, Ollie, Oxen Free

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 7, 2011

In the video games, Halo: The Fall of Reach and Halo: First Strike, the phrase “ollie, ollie, oxen free” is used a number of times to pass along information to other members of the team.  In Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, if a player shoots an enemy and then hides, the player is hunted down with the phrase “Ollie, ollie, oxen free! Come out, come out wherever you are!”

Aside from that, it’s hard to find published references to the phrase “ollie, ollie, oxen free.”

Children’s sayings were hardly recorded until the 1950s, and even then, the sayings are very variable. That’s because they’ve been passed down orally from one generation to the next, with no adult intervention or correction.  And so, errors in passing the sayings down from generation to generation is not unlike the misheard lyrics of popular songs over the decades.

The most likely explanation for the phrase is that it is a corruption of the German “Alle, alle auch sind frei” which, when translated, means “Everyone, everyone also is free.”  

When “alle, alle auch sind frei” is said in a normal speaking voice, phonetically it sounds somewhat like this: aw-luh aw-luh owhk zint fry. Imagine how it sounds when excited children are running about, shouting this at the top of their lungs and it’s easy to see how it becomes this: aw-luh aw-luh owxin fry. With minimal effort, it easily becomes: ollie, ollie, oxen free.

It may also be a corruption of “allez, allez” which is a Norman addition to the English language from French and is pronounced “all-ay, all-ay.” The word “allez” in French, of course, means “go.” The ensuing “in kommen frei” was a phrase popular in Dutch/German New York and Pennsylvania and meant “come in free.”  In this case, “Allez, allez, in kommon frie” may have morphed into a French-English hybrid: “Allez, allez, come in free!”

What we do know is that French court historian and poet, Jean Froissart (1337 – 1405) wrote of having played hide-and-go-seek in England as well as in France.  We also know that the game of hide-and-seek is nearly identical to the game described by the 2nd-century Greek writer Julius Pollux.

Idiomation was unable to located the phrase used in the game of hide-and-seek that was used to call hiders back to “home base” in either Froissart’s era or Pollux’s era.

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5 Responses to “Ollie, Ollie, Oxen Free”

  1. brownestudy said

    You have ‘allez!’, go, and ‘levez!’, get up. The ‘Alley’ of English folksong is said to be the Manchester Ship Canal, Suez, or the Atlantic.

  2. Kathy Calhoun said

    We used this phrase in the 1950’s when playing hide and seek. Grandmother was from Germany

    • Welcome to Idiomation, Kathy, and thanks for adding to this entry. Do you know if your grandmother learned the phrase from foreigners visiting Germany?

    • Joe Livak said

      We used this phrase in East Oakland in the 1950s and none us the kids were of German extraction, but the explanation by Elyse makes the most sense. A lot of people my age (75) are fondly familiar with the phrase.

  3. Pam said

    I’m younger than Joe above (in my early 50’s) but we used the phrase “Ollie, Ollie, oxen, free!” to call in remaining hiders in hide and seek in Texas when I was a kid in the late 60’s and early 70’s. So it was alive and well back then. That said, I have not heard children use it since then. Is it still used today?

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