Blackjack?

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I'm always happy to learn new things about playground culture. Like language, it's somehow completely consistent and endlessly variable across time and space. And now that my main source for contemporary playground lore (e.g. "Pickle jinx", 12/16/2003; "High jinx", 12/17/2003) has graduated to new sorts of games, I have to rely on internet clues like this:

The phrase "no tagbacks" is familiar from my childhood — and the concept presumably goes back to paleolithic times — but the use of "blackjack" in this context is new to me. And in this particular case, the internet has so far failed to provide the answer. [Update: but Ray Girvan came through].

However, my searches did turn up some playground lore that I somehow missed when it made the news — or at least the Daily Show — back in 2005. The context was the Valerie Plame story. Matt Cooper described his 2003 conversations with Karl Rove on this topic as being on "double super secret background", which many people, including me, perceived as a reference to Animal House ("Bakhtin in the West Wing", 7/18/2005). Stephen Colbert explained that "double super secret background" is

… just like regular background but with no tagbacks, frontsies or backsies, taken to infinity plus one on opposite day, circle circle dot dot now you've got a cootie shot. It was first pioneered by Edward R. Murrow.

This just adds to the "blackjack" mystery, though, because I only know frontsies and backsies as aspects of the culture of lines — "frontsies" if you let someone into the line ahead of you, "backsies" behind you — with frontsies sometimes being allowed but backsies never, due to complex but deeply felt considerations of fairness. And likewise, "infinity plus one" and "opposite day" are familiar concepts, but connected to "tagbacks" only by virtue of being terms of art in playground jurisprudence. So I assume that Colbert's writers were just piling up playground words for comic effect, without any particular attention to logic or even relevance.

The "cootie shot" rhyme was new to me. When I was a kid, there was certainly an extensive body of playground lore about "cooties", but no procedures or incantations for anti-cootie innoculations. In this case, however, Wikipedia came through with the explanation.

The OED's earliest citations for cootie in the sense of "body louse" come from the WW I era:

1917 EMPEY From Fire Step 24 'Does the straw bother you, mate? It's worked through my uniform and I can't sleep.' In a sleepy voice he answered, 'That ain't straw, them's cooties.'
1918 in F. A. Pottle Stretchers (1930) 199, I could soon fall asleep thinking how absurd to worry over lice and cooties when a man was at war.
1918 E. M. ROBERTS Flying Fighter 106, I made the acquaintance of a new sport while with the battery. A saucer serves for an arena. Into this one puts a kootie and a flea.

The Wikipedia entry, however, suggests an origin in "the American occupation of the Philippines, in 1898-1945, and before that to British soldiers' presence in Malaysia".

By the time I was growing up in rural eastern Connecticut, the term was extensively used by children in the sense described by the OED's draft addition of March 2006:

orig. U.S. A contagious germ; esp. (chiefly Children's slang) an imaginary germ with which a socially undesirable person, or one of the opposite sex, is said to be infected. Usu. in pl.

But the OED's earliest citations for this are way too late, though I don't have any earlier ones to offer:

1967 B. CLEARY Mitch & Amy iii. 51 Quit breathing on it… We don't want any of your cooties in the pudding.
1973 Jrnl. Amer. Folklore 86 135 A child who is habitually referred to as 'having cooties' is likely to be the poorest, dirtiest, most psychologically troubled child in the classroom… In a New Hampshire school, the boys had the 'cooties' and chased the girls.

Anyhow, I'm still not clear what "blackjack" is doing in "blackjack, no tagbacks", and I'm relying on readers to help me out. [But please don't tell us about the card game, we all already know that.]



70 Comments

  1. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 8:24 am

    Thank you for explaining cooties, something I've always wondered what they were (not having grown up in the US).

    Will you explain tagbacks, or is it self-evident?

    Fayknights is a good Brit.Eng playground word that could well be utilised later in life.

  2. Mark Liberman said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 8:37 am

    Rob Gunningham: Will you explain tagbacks, or is it self-evident?

    You probably already know the core use, though possibly not the terminology. In tag games, it's obviously a problem if someone who is tagged (and thus becomes "it") can instantly "tag back" the person who just tagged them. So "no tagbacks" is a standard rule, as neophytes occasionally need to be told.

    There are lots of extended uses in situations that have some conceptual affinity with tag games, that is, where one kid "tags" another with some undesirable status. I interpret the idol's "no tagbacks" assertion as meaning something like "you can't do to me what I just did to you", or "you can't repeat the interaction we just had in order to reverse our roles".

  3. Ray Girvan said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 8:51 am

    A number of Listserv and discussion posts claim an origin in a New York school rhyme, dating from the 1950s-60s and used in bartering to signify a deal to be irrevocable – "Black, black; no backs. Blue, blue; make it come true", with "Blackjack no back" a presumably garbled variant.

  4. Don Campbell said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 8:55 am

    I've never heard "blackjack" either, although like you I am familiar with most of the other playground lore in the post.

    My (educated) guess would be that "blackjack no tagbacks" is a local variant where "no tagbacks" has insufficent weight in the local playground culture by itself and "blackjack" must be added to it for one to actually be protected from tagbacks. The rhyming is the key feature leading me to this hypothesis.

  5. Thomas Thurman said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 9:03 am

    I'm familiar with jinx, but what is "opposite day"?

    I do honour jinxes in conversation with my young daughter, though I'm interested to discover that the word which allows me to resume speaking is "Daddy" and not my actual name.

    (I'd never heard it spelt "fayknights" before: I thought it was "fanites".)

  6. Morgan said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 9:04 am

    I'm familiar with "circle circle dot dot now you've got a cootie shot" from my childhood in Alabama, though I had not encountered it in the midwest or upstate NY where I lived until age 6. Colbert is from the Carolinas, I believe, so perhaps this particular playground lore is Southeastern.

  7. Martyn Cornell said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 9:04 am

    Rob Gunningham: "Fayknights" is usually rendered as fainites.

  8. AJD said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 9:08 am

    I don't know "blackjack" in this sense either, but the meaning I know for "no backsies" is 'You can't return to me the (presumably undesirable) object I just gave to you'—a close cousin to "no tagbacks".

  9. outeast said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 9:25 am

    There's a 1973 article in The Journal of American Folklore that apparently references the expression 'blackjack' as playground slang, seemingly associated in some way with a bit of doggerel that starts 'black, black, no talks back' (which would fit the context). Unfortunately, it's behind a JSTOR paywall so I can't check if it truly is what you're looking for… Maybe you can?

  10. outeast said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 9:33 am

    Coincidentally, It looks like the 1973 article I just cited is the same one referenced by the OED for 'cooties'.

  11. Brett said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 9:38 am

    My experience with "backsies" was the same as AJD's. Additionally, it was used almost exclusively by girls; usage by males was stigmatized.

    Letting somebody into line if front of you was called "cuts," (always plural). You could ask your friend, "Can I have cuts?" and get the reply, "Sure, I'll give you cuts." Letting somebody in behind you was "back cuts," and certainly was disliked. However, after first grade, it was acknowledged that if A gives B cuts, and then B gives A cuts, that was equivalent to back cuts; so if regular cuts were allowed, so were back cuts. However, the other people in the line had the right to insist that the A and B actually go through the two step process of B getting in front and then switching places. This was known as "Chinese cuts," presumably after "Chinese fire drill," although that term was not in my lexicon at the time.

  12. Malte said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 9:57 am

    @Thomas: Opposite day is nicely explained on Wikipedia.

    [offtopic: Another 'day' with school connections: I've been wondering about the to me surprising but ungooglable (brit. eng.) expression from day, which I found in this song. The lyrics (here) more or less confirm that it's a contraction of from day one. /offtopic]

  13. Lewis Powell said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 9:57 am

    At first I thought that the use of "Blackjack" here was parallel to calling "Gin" or "Checkmate" (i.e. indicating victory in the respective games), but I am not sure that makes as much sense, on reflection.

  14. Mark Liberman said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 10:04 am

    @outeast: The mention of "blackjack" in Herbert Knapp and Mary Knapp, "Tradition and change in American Playground Language", The Journal of American Folklore 86(340): 131-141 (1973), is actually in the context of a discusion of "jinx" and similar responses to coincident speech (see here and here for earlier Language Log discussion):

    Less popular responses to the simultaneous expression of the same word include the practice of knocking on wood; of linking pinkies and saying opposites, such as "Cat" / "Dog"; of shouting "Padlock," "Pink-wish," "Slapjack," "Blackjack," "Jiggers," or "Black, black, no talks back." The latter seems to be a "spin- off" from the more common "Black, black, no tags (trades) back," which is uttered on other occasions.

    Knapp & Knapp do also have a fascinating discussion of "cooties". To avoid introducing too big a chunk of text into the comments, I'll quote it on a separate page, noting here only that they establish (though without textual citations) that the playground use of the term is at least 30 years older than 1967:

    Almost all our informants who attended fifth grade in the fifties, sixties, and seventies recall "Cooties." The percentage of affirmative replies declines in the forties and thirties.

  15. Arnold Zwicky said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 10:15 am

    The OED has a great entry for the school slang fain, in the expressions: fains, fain I, fains I, fain it, fainit, fainites. (Since the expression is transmitted orally, there are various spellings. The spelling "fayknights" might represent an eggcornish reanalysis of the truce expression, which has nothing to do with knights.) The earliest cite is an 1870 item in Notes and Queries, a report on schoolyard practice.

    The OED relates fain to the schoolboy verb fen 'forbid', itself usually taken to be a corruption of fend, and attested from 1823 on.

  16. Busyhands said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 10:21 am

    For a humourous take on "cooties" (and from NYC), see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6ylxWcwkUM

  17. outeast said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 10:27 am

    Mark L:

    Thanks for checking that. I find the list of rituals and expressions cited for coincident speech there to be a bit surprising; I can see knocking on wood is a way of avering the jinx, but how does 'Black, black, no talks back' come into it? (I'm guessing 'no talks back' has exactly this sense, with 'talks' being used to mean 'things said'?)

    Ray Girvan's listserv attribution would seem to support the hypothesis that 'blackjack', 'Black, black, no talks back', and 'Black, black, no trades back' are all part of one group with 'black, black, no backs'. If this hypothesized link is correct, I suppose that in the context of the cartoon it'd mean something like 'no going back on what you said'. I don't see how either 'blackjack' or 'black, black…' would be pertinent to coincident speech, but the ways of playground ritual can be pretty opaque I guess…

  18. Dana said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 10:32 am

    As another person from the Carolinas (Raleigh, NC, in this case), I can confirm that the cootie inoculation rhyme was still active in elementary schools the mid-1980s. It had also expanded. You began with, "Circle, circle, dot, dot, now I have my cootie shot," and continued with "Circle, circle, square, square, now I have it everywhere," which prevented people from tagging you with cooties on another part of your body and then arguing that your cootie shot was only good on the arm (or whatever) where it had originally been administered.

    I think there was yet a third rhyme that made the cootie shot apply for the rest of the day, as well, but I can't remember it. Hmmm, according to the Wikipedia entry, it was actually a rhyme that made one immune for life! How handy. This was in much less use in my school. We also self-administered our shots, rather than having to have a friend do it, as the article claims.

  19. outeast said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 10:37 am

    PS Just read the page on cooties. Thanks for putting that up! Really interesting. Kind of unsettling the way the authors keep referring to a rather unpleasant form of phychological bullying as a 'game', though… especially when they talk about the '"Cootie Queen" who reigned year after year', which makes being singled out for verbal abuse and exclusion for several years sound rather a privelege.

  20. Greg said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 10:38 am

    When I was in grade school in the mid to late 80s and early 90s, the cootie shot phenomenon was rather expanded. beyond "circle circle dot dot, now i have my cootie shot" there was also "circle circle square square, now I have it everywhere" on the assumption that immunities only were valid in the location they were given. There was another addition as well, but I forget how it goes.

    Cuts/frontsies & backsies weren't something I encountered, though I'm familiar with them.

    A variation on tag backs was also present in the punch buggy game: "punch buggy yellow! no punch backs!"

    I've never heard of blackjack, though it sounds like it could be used as a cry of victory as someone else mentioned.

    I've never heard of fainities either.

  21. outeast said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 10:43 am

    Dana

    We also self-administered our shots, rather than having to have a friend do it, as the article claims.

    FWIW, the article talks about self-administering cootie shots, consistent with your own experience (and wirth the version in the Wikipedia article, too):

    'The child who passes on the "cooties" may protect himself by shouting, "No gives back," or by giving himself a "cootie shot," which inoculates him.'

    I think you must have inferred the third-person innoculation from the Colbert script, which has 'now you've got a cootie shot.'

  22. John Cowan said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 10:58 am

    Where and when I grew up (northern New Jersey in the early 60s), the cutting-in-line procedures were known as front ditches and back ditches, and the procedure of allowing an otherwise-forbidden back ditch by composing (in the sense of function theory) two front ditches was known and followed but not specially named.

    Backsies, on the other hand, to us meant 'a retaliatory blow', so "No backsies!" meant "I'm hitting you and you aren't allowed to hit me back." Usually the blows were intended to tease rather than do bodily harm.

    I've seen this fainites spelled as feign I, which confused me no end. Good to see it's a folk etymology.

  23. Michael Winterstein said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 11:25 am

    We used "black, black no trades back" (Northern California, early '80s). The speaker was required to touch something black in order for it to be binding.

    I also find the use of 'tagback' in the comic unfamiliar – to us, a 'tagback' would only be used while playing tag, with the 'trade' form used in the situation described.

  24. Eric Bakovic said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 11:31 am

    I used "no tagbacks" as a kid, but never preceded by "blackjack" or anything like it — and yet this sounded very familiar. Then I remembered this Cheech & Chong sketch: at about minute 3:40, the "gameshow host" (played by Cheech Marin) says (what sounds to me like) "black black no tagbacks". (Here's another copy of the sketch that allows you to fast-forward to the relevant spot.)

  25. mgh said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 11:32 am

    outeast: fwiw, in my kindergarten, cootie shots could NOT be self-administered, partly by tradition and partly by the nature of the shot itself which involved holding index and middle finger of each hand up in a vee, crossing the vees to make a sort of tic-tac-toe shape, and applying it palm-side-down to the upper shoulder. The result was that the most friendless kids would not be able to get a shot, and would end up with cooties. It also led to alliances, where kids paired off and agreed to innoculate each other as needed. (I think each shot only lasted for one exposure to cooties, and I forget if it was really a preventative innoculation or more of an antivenom delivered after the fact).

    None of which has anything to do with blackjack.

  26. Chris Kern said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 12:06 pm

    The only context I know "blackjack" from is jinx. If you said the same thing at the same time as another person, you could call "jinx" and then they can't talk until someone says their name. However, there was apparently a rule where if you were wearing black, you could say "blackjack" and then be able to speak again. So usually the person would say "jinx, no blackjacks".

    I don't know if this is related to the comic usage, though.

  27. Skorri said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 12:22 pm

    Spoon spoon, knife knife, now I've got it all my life.

    This one is important. Even if you get a cootie vaccine and then upgrade it to be good for everywhere, the cootie-giver can decide it wears off in ten seconds and then pounce in to infect you. (For what it's worth, I'm from Georgia, so maybe it *is* a Southern thing…)

    Has no one mentioned "I'm rubber and you're glue" yet? I think we used that as a kind of "no tagbacks," for verbal sparring. (That and "I know you are but what am I.") I don't think we ever used the phrase tagbacks, but "Punchbug blue, *smack* no punchbacks!" was ubiquitous.

  28. Cameron Majidi said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 12:22 pm

    If "cooties" entered American vocabulary only after The Great War, it must have become widespread pretty quickly. In the silent comedy "Soldier Man" (1926), a Harry Langdon vehicle written by the young Frank Capra, there's a gag that refers to the word. Langdon's character is in the trenches during the war, and is nicked by a bullet; he is unharmed,but apparently the bullet flicked a body louse off of him, and he exclaims (in the intertitle) "Poor little cootie!"

  29. Bobbie said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 12:28 pm

    Would someone please explain "opposite day" I never heard that phrase growing up.
    NO FAIR if you know what it means and don't explain it to those of us who grew up elsewhere….. (And waving it off as "something everybody knows" is not allowed here.)
    Trying to remember all those little catchwords that kids used over the years is straining my remaining brain cells!

  30. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

    Arnold Zwicky said, The OED relates fain to the schoolboy verb fen 'forbid', itself usually taken to be a corruption of fend, and attested from 1823 on.

    That's interesting. I haven't got access to the OED right now, but Merriam-Webster online says (in one sense) the opposite, i.e. that 'fain' in the 19th c. meant 'compelled': "Great Britain was fain to devote its whole energy…to the business of slaying and being slain" — G. M. Trevelyan.

    Since we never wrote it, 'fayknights' is just my own spelling. It is as you say, probably based on my mental image of men in armour. I think it is a useful concept: many an overheated situation could be brought down a few notches by the waving of crossed fingers and the shouting of 'Ok, fayknights, fayknights', however it's spelled.

  31. Dana said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

    @ outeast: I was referring specifically to the subsection of the Wikipedia article on the cootie shot, which consistently refers to one child giving the shot to another: Children sometimes "immunize" each other from cooties by administering a "cootie shot." One child typically administers the "shot" by reciting the rhyme "circle, circle / dot, dot / now you've got the cootie shot" while using an index finger to trace the circles and dots on another child's forearm.

    @ Bobbie: Opposite Day. The Calvin & Hobbes example is pretty illustrative.

  32. Thomas Thurman said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 1:06 pm

    Where I grew up in southern England, we didn't have cooties; I never heard the word until I met some Americans as a teenager. We did have an identical game called "fleas", though; you could touch someone and chant (not say) "fleas", and then that person "had the fleas" and was expected to pass it on. They WERE allowed to give you the fleas back unless you had your fingers crossed and chanted "Cross keys, you've got the fleas" immediately afterwards. However, you could do the equivalent of your "cootie shots" by miming injecting yourself and saying "flea injection nine nine nine" (this being the British telephone number for the emergency services)– we didn't call injections "shots".

  33. Ryan Rosso said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 1:07 pm

    At my school, chinese cuts and back cuts were both illegal by unwritten elementary school law. My elementary school colleagues made extensive use of 'circle, circle, dot, dot'. This was in the early 90s in West Michigan, and seemed rather prevalent by that time.

    I was also unfamiliar with Blackjack, until I read Chris Kern's comment:

    "The only context I know "blackjack" from is jinx. If you said the same thing at the same time as another person, you could call "jinx" and then they can't talk until someone says their name. However, there was apparently a rule where if you were wearing black, you could say "blackjack" and then be able to speak again. So usually the person would say "jinx, no blackjacks"."

    Now I remember quite vividly the blackjack phenomenon, which also at some point incorporated "double blackjack" to counter "no blackjack." The issue would then escalate further with the pre-emptive use of "no double blackjack!"

  34. Nancy said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 1:13 pm

    Circle circle dot dot now I've got a cootie shot
    Circle circle square square now I've got it everywhere
    Spoon spoon knife knife now I've got it all my life

    So don't none of y'all even try to give me cooties. I'm immune.

    And it's SLUG BUG, not punch bug. No slug backs.

  35. Zubon said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 1:38 pm

    On the slug/punch bug front, xkcd is of course on the scene. I'll link the forum, which includes the comic and continued discussion:
    http://forums.xkcd.com/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=19284&st=0&sk=t&sd=a
    Which is of no help on the blackjack front, sorry (but I think it still falls under the playground culture topic, via "tagbacks"). For what it's worth, no "blackjack" in my (SE Michigan 1980s) playground days either. Tagbacks were of course forbidden, frontsies were frowned upon and backsies forbidden by etiquette (under the name "cuts," with that reversal being recognized as forbidden backsies), all forms of infinity/opposite day/rubber & glue were in play, and cootie shots did not exist. Among the lads, cootie shots would especially not exist with a rhyme. And they were slug bugs.

  36. bruce said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 1:48 pm

    For some reason, growing up in Toronto in the 1980s we had "black ball beats them all" which was a general annunciation of power. Often, but not always, paired with "no touchbacks"

    Trying to understand the idea behind frontsies/backsies. It's about who's adjacent to you in line, right? If you permit a backsy, then the person behind you sees someone visibly cut in front of them, slowing their access to the front of the line. If you permit a frontsy, then the person in front of you merely sees another person cut in behind them, which doesn't slow down his or her progress.

    I know, in reality it's exactly the same thing, but … it's somehow different.

  37. Arnold Zwicky said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 2:10 pm

    To Rob Gunningham: there are several lexical items fain. My comment was about the schoolkid item, which the OED categorizes as a verb. The fain you found in M-W Online is an adjective (sometimes adverb) with a very different etymology, going back to OE and earlier Germanic, where its first sense was 'glad, rejoiced, well-pleased', which later developed a sense 'necessitated, compelled' (semantic change is fascinating).

  38. Kate said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 2:17 pm

    FWIW, I grew up in the Pacific Northwest in the 90's, and we definitely had "blackjack, no tagbacks". I don't think it had to do with playing tag though, it was more of a jinxing game thing, to prevent jinx retribution.

    And the whole slugbug thing is for long car trips: The kid who sees a VW Beetle first is allowed to hit their siblings and yell "SLUG BUG!" because the Beetle is a bug.

    When the New Beetle came out, we had endless discussions about whether or not it counted as a slug bug.

  39. Arnold Zwicky said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 2:25 pm

    Nancy insists: "And it's SLUG BUG, not punch bug. No slug backs."

    Comments like these come up repeatedly, here and on ADS-L. There's variation for certain expressions, and people want to insist that the version they're familiar with is the true, correct version. (Back in June we went around on "good/close enough for government work" on ADS-L, and there was a certain amount of hassling about which version was the correct one. They're both used, and they appeared at roughly the same time, so each is just as good as the other.)

    Schoolkid expressions vary enormously, in lexical content, pronunciation, and uses; they're different from place to place and social group to social group, and they change over time. Even if you can argue that some versions are older than others, that doesn't mean that the older versions are the "correct" ones. There's simply a lot of variation.

  40. Nancy said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 2:27 pm

    Someone please explain Fayknights, or fanites or fainites. I can't find it referenced and am dying to know the context in which it's used.

    Could it be related to the word "fay" or "fey" perhaps? Fey night? Fey naught? fey knot? Some BrE speaker help me out!

    BTW, New Beetle definitely counts for a Slug Bug.

  41. Robert Sharp said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 2:45 pm

    Circle circle, dot dot….

    Draw it out. In my school it was always just a "sneaky" way to draw a crude representation of a woman's breasts on someone's body. In pen. Kinda like joining the pen 15 club.

  42. William Ockham said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

    Here's a contemporary reference to blackjack in connection with jinxing:

    http://blogs.chron.com/yaocentral/archives/2008/03/blackjack.html

    The post starts out:

    Blackjack!
    You have to understand… I'm really not trying to jinx this right now. But I'd be remiss if I didn't post something after Houston's 89-80 win over Charlotte. Second. Longest. Win. Streak. In. NBA. History. 21-0. That can't be taken back, that doesn't have any caveats.

  43. Thomas Thurman said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 3:39 pm

    Nancy: Are you familiar with the home/homey rule in the game of tag/he/had/it or whatever you call it, where touching a particular point means you are temporarily suspended from participation so that you can avoid being caught and get your breath back? Fanites or however it's spelt is a kind of temporary version of this which involves saying the word (accompanied in some versions by a gesture) thus suspending whatever activity someone is involving you in.

    In earlier days in schools where Latin was taught an identical rule was simply called "pax", peace.

  44. danthelawyer said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 4:00 pm

    While we're on the subject of cartoons, check out today's Dinosaur Comics," relating to the Great Vowel Shift. http://www.qwantz.com/

    Be sure to hover your mouse over the cartoon for a meta-joke talking directly to linguists.

  45. Thomas Thurman said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 4:05 pm

    I think I'm supposed to say "Lol I iz the king of spain" or something at this point.

  46. Thomas Thurman said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 4:05 pm

    (and thanks for the pointer; I was amused)

  47. Tim Silverman said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 4:23 pm

    @bruce. I think the thing about frontsies is that the person granting the favour also pays the cost (going back one step in the queue). With backsies, they don't—they keep the privilege that they've taken from others.

  48. S Onosson said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 4:29 pm

    Growing up in Canada, early 70s and late 80s, I always knew it as "punch buggy" (note the "buggy", never "bug"), and it was always in the context of "Punch buggy [insert colour], no returns."

    Regarding "no tagbacks", I don't ever recall hearing that, but I do remember "no take backs". I wonder if this is a regional variation, or just my own personal misinterpretation?

  49. Linda said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 4:45 pm

    The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, Peter and Iona Opie, OUP, 1959, defines Fainites as a Truce Term used south of a line from the Wash to the Severn Estuary. North of this Barley is used.

    They quote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to prove the age of Barley.

    "And I shal stonde hym a strok, stif on this flet;
    Elles thou wil dight me the dom to dele him an other,
    Barlay,
    And yet give him respite,"
    294-297

  50. Philip Resnik said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 5:05 pm

    I wonder if the "circle circle dot dot" may actually be based on more than just random words that give you the right rhyme and rhythm. When I was a kid, I went through extensive allergy testing and had umpteen injections on each arm every week or two. The nurse would circle the injection sites with a ballpoint pen (!), so a half hour or so later she could easily look to see which sites had reacted and which sites had not. Circle, dot. Many times over. I wonder if circling injection sites was standard practice when and where the rhyme originated… was that done, e.g., for the skin test for tuberculosis, originally introduced in 1907? (Incidentally, it's not clear to me that the testing or treatments had any effect on me whatsoever, except that unlike many people I'm completely unafraid of needles…)

  51. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 5:42 pm

    One other thing about feyknights. Although with other groups, at different times, we used truce or pax (which I would have thought of at that time as packs), feyknights was a more satisfying word that (though we said it as many times a day as any other noun) was NEVER used by adults. It was our word, which truce and 'packs' were not. This makes it easy for me to understand why people get so upset about losing their own dialect words, it's part of your identity.

  52. lynneguist said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 5:42 pm

    Some more (or different) on jinx, fainites and related words (but not blackjack) at Separated by a Common Language. According to the OED, fainites comes from fen, which is:

    "[Usually taken to be a corruption of FEND v.]

    trans. To forbid. Only in 'Fen (larks, etc.)!', a prohibitory exclamation, used chiefly by boys at marbles, etc., in order to balk, bar, or prevent some action on the part of another."

  53. lynneguist said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 5:43 pm

    Failed to include the link in the last one…

  54. Catanea said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 5:54 pm

    And is not then "barlay" leading directly to "parlay" of Pirates of the Carribean fame?

  55. Timothy M said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 6:08 pm

    I just wanted to add that what some people have referred to as "Chinese cuts" was called, aptly, "frontsie-backsie" at my elementary school.

  56. Ray Girvan said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 6:35 pm

    And is not then "barlay" leading directly to "parlay" of Pirates of the Carribean fame?

    Probably. According to the OED, although there's uncertainty about the path, all of the variants parley/parlay/parle/etc = "truce" connect with OF parler, and I've no doubt barlay/barley in this context came from the same root. There's a standard factoid that "barley" is a corruption of "parley", but going by the Gawain reference, I strongly suspect the "p" and "b" versions might have coexisted right from the moment parler found its way into English.

  57. Faldone said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 7:11 pm

    Has anyone addressed the issue of claiming no takebacks after the takeback has already been done?

  58. Pandammonium: blogs [pandammonia] said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 7:15 pm

    […] by the "blackjack" at the end because I don't know what it means.  Neither does Language Logger Mark Liberman.  I'm assuming "no tagbacks" is the same as "no tiggy butcher", […]

  59. Nick Z said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 7:41 pm

    @ Arnold Zwicky: I had experience in the variation of childhood expressions when I moved from Northampton (in the Midlands of England), where the standard game was "tiggy off ground" (where you were safe if elevated, e.g. on a step, railing etc.) to Bristol (in the South West), where it was simple "tig". A pretty minor difference, but enough at the age of 7 to come as a considerable surprise. In fact, I went around for quite some time insisting that the original and superior term was "tiggy".

    God knows what scarring would have been caused if I'd moved to an area in which "tag" or "it" were played….

    Incidentally, "no returns" was the standard way of avoiding being re-tagged (not tigged, oddly enough). This also featured in the rather unpleasant little rhyme (accompanied by appropriate actions) "pinch, punch, first of the month. No returns".

  60. Ray Girvan said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 8:06 pm

    "pinch, punch, first of the month"

    On no evidence whatsoever, I wonder if this is what the colours in "Black, black … Blue, blue" imply – sealing the deal by hitting someone.

  61. Adrian Bailey said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 10:10 pm

    fwiw where I grew up in Cheshire, the game was called "tick-a-nick" (sometimes "tick-a-nick off ground") and our pax word was "barley". The regional variation in truce words has been mapped in more than one survey – the Opies' was probably one of them.

  62. dr pepper said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 10:32 pm

    The comment in the dinosaur comic reminds me of a claim that some of hte pronunciations in castilian were developed by coutiers accomodating a king with a lisp.

  63. Dave K said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 12:27 am

    I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago in the 1970s. We certainly had the concept and term "cooties", though usually as something that the opposite sex had in general. However, I never heard the "circle circle dot dot" rhyme until earlier this year when I saw the musical "Hairspray", which has a song called "Cooties", including the lyric "circle circle dot dot dot, now I've got my cooties shot". (The song was cut from the 2007 movie version, except for an expanded version played over the end credits.) I didn't even realize it was a common playground rhyme (in certain times and places) until I googled those lyrics long after the fact and found the Wikipedia article on cooties. You learn something new every day.

    We also had "no tagbacks", though I've never heard "blackjack" in conjunction with that. And I think of "jinx" as being inextricably tied to "buy me a Coke".

  64. outeast said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 2:33 am

    On 'barlay'

    I wonder if this could have played any role in the E17 development of the slang expression 'belay' for 'stop'? (I know that the general word 'belay' has a different etymology, but the similarity between the slangy 'belay' and 'barley' in both meaning and sound makes me wonder.)

  65. A-gu said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 6:17 am

    For those in the dark:

    On opposite day, the opposite of everything you said was actually the truth. An elementary school generally declared an opposite day (ours was Wed.) but it could also be invoked when you said something you didn't mean or that embarrassed you.

    Obviously, on Opposite Day there were very comical exchanges as people tried to make heads or tales of when people were actually making "opposite" statements.

  66. Ben K. said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 6:54 pm

    There seem to be plenty of theories here on what blackjack might have meant but I'd just like to throw in another tidbit. I know that from my childhood there were loosely two rankings of words you could pull out to affect the game.

    The first was a pretty standard grouping of words or phrases that made plenty of sense like 'no tagbacks'.

    The second ranking seemed to make little sense. There was a whole slew of them too, many likely made up on the spot. I remember kids calling black magic and white magic on me and have long forgot the meanings.

    It is certainly possible that this is an evolved phrase or on a more chaotic note it could simply be a word his school tended to use spawning from some kid's random association when he wanted to get his way.

  67. Des Power said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 5:51 am

    "Barley" is used to give a rest from being chased in Australia too.

  68. M Blanc said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 6:18 am

    Ha! and here I was all this time living with my conjecture that 'cooties' came from latin 'cutis'.

  69. phosphorious said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 5:23 pm

    "No backsies" was meant to prevent the return of an unwanted item. . . if for example you unloaded a Flash comic in exchange for a Spiderman, and your friend later wised up. . . but could also apply to cooties and hits as well.

    I never heard "Black Jack" but "No Backsies, Touch Blacksies" was the more legally binding form of "No Backsies".

    But you had to touch something black while sayng it.

  70. Carolyn said,

    July 20, 2008 @ 3:19 pm

    Ben K:
    I remember from my playground days wiping imaginary germs onto friends and declaring "x germs, black and white magic forever!" where x represents a particularly despised classmate.
    So, seems to me incantations of black and/or white magic were used to prevent people from giving back something undesirable, giving the speaker a 'magical shield' against germs/cooties/whathaveyou.

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