Periodically I've thought about "Olly Olly Oxen Free" and wondered where it came from. I have forgotten almost as many times to look it up and find out the origin of this cry that marked the end of every round of Hide and Seek for me and my friends and then for Laurent and his, a generation later.
I distinctly remember when I learned it, on Liberty Street, not long after we moved onto the block. Where we'd lived before, there weren't any kids, let alone a whole gaggle of kids, to play with -- 23 kids, if I'm not mistaken, which is a hell of a lot for one block, right? On Liberty Street, we had enough kids to choose teams in games, put on plays and circuses, organize roller-skated expeditions to the flat part of 22nd street 4 blocks away or trek over the hill to Bud's for hot fudge sundaes on a Saturday, safety in numbers.
On a sunbaked day, I was It, counting to 100 with my face pressed against my arms in the steep driveway of our white stucco'ed house, back when it was by far the ugliest house on the block, earlier heathen inhabitants having utterly obliterated the gingerbread trim of its Victorian facade. Then, when I'd exhausted my attempts to find everyone, throwing back my head and shouting, "Olly Olly Oxen Free," just like my new friends did. It was significant for me to share in this language, to learn these American words.
Not sure, but I don't think we yelled "Olly Olly Oxen Free" at recess at the French American Bilingual School. So it was such a pleasure to speak these regular words -- to disappear the gap between the culture we were raised in and that of the kids on the block.
Laurent, too, in his own time, learned this cry from his friends, and so it continues, nonsense words that we all understand, we American kids.
And yeah, finally, I looked it up. "Olly Olly Oxen Free" is either a derivation of the phrase "All ye, all ye 'outs' in free," or, much more complicatedly, "an English-Norman French-Dutch/German concoction: 'Alles, Alles, 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, ...meaning 'come in free.'" Hmm.
No matter where it came from, there's something so cool about the way this expression continues on, passed along kid to kid, to me in the late 60s when I was little, to Laurent in the 90s, part of childhood culture, a language without grown-ups or school. These words made me part of a whole tribe of kids, the great big family of our block, running, free, in the street, the sidewalks a paradise of our own invention.