Monday, 24 August 2020

Children’s Truce Terms: Fainites and Barleys

Happily, the Deaf Old Buggers are still three in number. Recently, one of them was recalling his days at the orphanage in England in the nineteen-forties. This was not an institution for the faint-hearted, and fights among the boys were not uncommon. There was, however, a certain code of honour. You could not hit your opponent when he was down; you had to wait for him to get up again. And it was possible to call a truce at any time: “Fainites,” you would cry.

This reminded me of my days as a child in Australia where we too would fight from time to time, and  would have a call for truce, although perhaps it was more a call of surrender. When your opponent had you on the ground in a neck-hold, if you managed to gasp out “Barleys”, he would have to release you.

I remember on one occasion, one of us cried “Barleys”, and the victor retorted: “You can’t say ‘barleys’ when the Japs are after you.” This was a legitimate remark in Australia just after the Second World War.

“Barleys” and “fainites”, and their variations, are but two of many truce words used in children’s games, according to the authority on this topic, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren by Iona and Peter Opie. In some cases they date back to the  Middle Ages.

In answering a question about the origin of “fainites” in the Guardian column “Notes and Queries”, Meff Lewis writes:

The word itself derives from the 14th- century "feine" or "faine", itself deriving from the Old French se feindre meaning "to make excuses, hang back, back out (esp. of battle)". The "nites" part may have originated in "faine Sir Knight", a medieval truce in non-mortal combat or jousting. JRR Tolkien points out the Chaucerian usage where, in the Clerk's Tale, a servant says "that lordes heestes mowe nat been yfeyned", meaning that his orders could not be treated with a "fain I" (I decline) but must be obeyed.

As with “fainites”, “barleys” dates back to the Middle Ages as well, appearing as a truce term (barlay) in the 14th century poem, “St. Gawain and the Green Knight”. The possible origins of the word are fascinating. To cry barleyfummilin in old Scots is to ask for a truce. In an old English and Scottish chasing game Barley Break, the action seems to have begun with the cry, “Barley Break” to end the barley or parley, that is, the preliminary talking, and to start chasing. Could a participant then cease the action, by crying, “Barley”? This seems to me the most likely origin of the term, from the English word parley, from the French parler.

In a discussion of the word “barleys” in the online Australian MacQuarie Dictionary, contributors reveal that this was the truce word used universally across Australia, not so much in a fight as I remember it, but as a call for a pause in any game such as chasey (tag) if you had to dash off to the dunny (loo). Perhaps our simple Australian  game of chasey could be traced back to the more elaborate Barley Break. Sometimes “barleys”, or “barlees”, or   “barleese”, for as part of the oral tradition it was never written down, was stressed on the first syllable, sometimes the second, and in Australian fashion, sometimes it was shortened to “bars”.

We may be near the end of an oral tradition extending back hundreds of years. As with skipping rhymes, we never picked up these terms from our parents, but from other kids. They were passed on, as children’s subculture, not from generation to generation, but within generations, from older to younger kids. A little girl ventures out onto the playground and is invited into the game, perhaps to make up numbers. She absorbs “the lore and language of childhood”. Sadly, this tradition may be dying as children play more “sophisticated” electronic games and text instead of talk.

These are only two of many terms discussed in the interesting article in Wikipedia, “Truce Terms” from which I have gleaned much of this information. The third of the DOBs, who was a young kid in the late nineteen thirties in Ontario, had no recollection of any such words. They may not have caught on in Canada. Perhaps readers will share some memories from their childhood. For another of the DOBs’ excursions into language, see Deaf Old Buggers in a Subjunctive Mood.


  1. Good afternoon Chas
    I grew up in Edmonton (Alberta) and oddly enough on the street two words were used for I give up, or 'nough those were Barleys and Uncle.

    1. Interesting, Richard. “Uncle”, I believe, was the American term.