The popular name for the horsechestnut, and for the game played with them, suspended on a string. The history of the game is not quite as clear as it could be, but its outlines are known even if the precise dating is unclear. The name appears to derive from a previous game called ‘conquerors’ or ‘conquering’, in which snail shells are squeezed together, point to point, to see which will break first. The earliest description of this game was written by Robert Southey in 1821, recalling his childhood near Bristol in 1782. In parallel with this game, however, another existed from at least the mid-17th century in which hazel-nuts or cob-nuts were strung and knocked together, in the same way as our modern conkers. By the 1850s, horsechestnuts and walnuts are mentioned, but the earliest known unambiguous reference to horse-chestnuts being used dates from the Every Boy's Book of 1856. It is clear that this game was not nearly as well known in the second half of the 19th century as one would expect from its ubiquity in the 20th. As Vickery points out, the entries in Britten and Holland's Dictionary of English Plant-Names (1878–86) imply that the game was known in certain parts of the country only.
The modern game of conkers is replete with its own etiquette and terminology, including the scoring by which a victorious conker takes on the score of its defeated opponent (e.g. if a ten-er beats a six-er it becomes a seventeen-er, 10 +6 + 1). Your opponent can stamp on your conker if you drop it unless you shout ‘Bagsie no stampsies’ first; a ‘cheesecutter’ was a conker with a flat side; the cry to claim first hit varies from place to place but always has to rhyme with ‘conker’:Iddy iddy onker, my first conkerIddy iddy oh, my first go
As with other children's games there are periodic worried questions whether the game of conkers is dying out, and there are also adult competitions during the season which are well reported in the national press.
Opie and Opie, 1969: 227–32;Vickery, 1995: 189–97.