Iona and Peter Opie and the Oxford English Dictionary
Iona and Peter Opie spent decades recording and cataloguing children’s games, songs, folklore, and nonsense rhymes. Their lifelong fascination began one day in the 1940s when Iona picked up a ladybird and found herself automatically reciting the familiar rhyme ‘Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home; Your house is on fire and your children all gone’. A desire to discover the origins of this curious rhyme launched their research, culminating in the publication of the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1951). This was followed by studies of the language used by schoolchildren, collected by surveying teachers and pupils, published as The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959) and Children’s Games in Street and Playground (1969). The vast collection of linguistic materials compiled by the Opies was drawn upon extensively for the Oxford English Dictionary; the recent death of Iona Opie seems an appropriate time to reflect upon the linguistic riches captured and preserved thanks to their efforts.
One aspect of school life examined by their survey concerned the linguistic formulae invoked to resolve disputes and to settle arguments over ownership rights. The principle that a lost item becomes the property of the first person to find it is enshrined in the rhyme finders keepers, losers weepers, which comes in a variety of regional guises, such as Findie, findie, keeps it; Losie, losie, seeks it, or Finders keeps; Losers greets (a Scots word meaning ‘cry’). Other versions codify the taboo against attempting to take back objects claimed in this manner, such as Findings keepings; Taking back’s stealings.
Another method of claiming ownership or precedence involves being the first to exclaim bags I, or bagsy. Once again, a number of regional alternatives were attested, including ballow, barley, bollars, chaps, fogs, jigs it, and nab it. The best-known contemporary equivalent is probably shotgun, which originated in a claim to ride in the front passenger seat – known as the shotgun seat because it is the position typically occupied by an armed guard. If ownership of an item is being voluntarily renounced – presumably because it no longer works or tastes disgusting – children in private schools typically used the Latin quis ‘who’, to which the first person to respond ego (Latin for ‘I’) was entitled to lay claim. If that may seem to imply impressive levels of Latinity among 1950s schoolchildren, this appearance is somewhat undermined by the existence of the equivalent phrase I egoed it. A less decorous method of redistribution sees the donor launching the object into the air and shouting scrambles!, and then retreating to admire the resulting melee.
Of all the playground games recorded, one of the simplest and most durable involves a single child chasing a pack; when the pursuer catches one of the children, he or she becomes the pursuer. This game has been known by a variety of names, including tig, tag, touch, it, he, kingy; in Cornwall it is called widdy, widdy way – from the following rhyme with which the game begins: ‘Widdy, widdy, way, Is a very pretty play, Once, twice, three times, And all run away’.
Playground rhymes and songs were also surveyed, tracing the way that they become incorporated into games. In the game known as Hi Cockalorum, the exclamation hey cockalorum, jig, jig, jig! is shouted by a player when leapfrogging over the backs of the others; this originated in the refrain of a popular song from the early 19th century. An important item in a child’s vocabulary for this and many other playground games is the truce term that is shouted when a child wants to pause the game – to tie up a shoe-lace, catch breath, or to investigate a grazed knee – regional variants include fains, scribs, cree, barley, kings, crosses, skinch, and keys. Alongside these simple games are rather more sinister pastimes that would cause a school inspector to blanch, such as knifey, in which children throw knives into the ground so as to just miss their opponent’s feet.
Another category surveyed comprised the names given to various pranks. Particularly popular at the time was the game in which a child raps loudly on the front door of a house and then runs away, leaving a confused householder gazing down an empty street – the aim of the game being to escape without being spotted. The Opies recorded more than sixty names for this dubious practice; these range from the straightforwardly descriptive Ring-Bell-Scoot, Tap-Door-Run, Bing Bang Skoosh, to the more unusual Cheeky Nellie, Jinksy Tat, Rosy Apple, Black and White Rabbit, and Squashed Tomato (also recorded as a name for the game better known today as Sardines). In London and the South-East the dominant name was knock down ginger – perhaps based on the common use of ginger as a nick-name for someone with ginger hair. Pranks like these require the appointment of a lookout – termed a weany, spy-eye, crow-boy, rookie, or dodger, whose job it was to keep cave (Latin ‘beware’) or nix, dousy, Kate, or conk.
Reading through the OED entries today is a reminder of how quickly children’s slang dates – words like ace, beezer, bonza, whizzing, rotten, swiz, and chiz survive today only in the stories of Geoffrey Willan’s fictional schoolboy Nigel Molesworth – but it is also a testimony to the inventiveness and creativity of children’s language, and of the dedication and industry of the Opies who sought to preserve it.