truce terms

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Words which are accepted amongst a group of children as a valid way of calling a temporary truce during the course of a game or other activity, and thereby claiming immunity from being caught, touched, etc. lona and Peter Opie were the first to attempt a systematic look at this aspect of what they termed children's ‘code of oral legislation’, and their fieldwork in the 1950s brought striking results. A range of words were found, but their use was markedly regional and they were able to present a map showing the dominant words in each area (see Opie and Opie, 1959: 149). The word with the widest distribution was ‘barley’, which has a very long literary history, and others were ‘fainites’ (probably from Middle English), ‘kings’, ‘kings and crosses’, ‘skinch’, ‘scribs’, and ‘cree’. The small survey reported by Beckwith and Shirley confirmed and extended the Opies' findings for Lincolnshire in 1974, but an even smaller-scale survey by Kate and Steve Roud in 1988 completely disagreed. Their research focused on the London Borough of Croydon—which in the 1950s was firmly in the ‘fainites’ area—and they discovered three widely used terms: ‘jecs’ (previously unrecorded), ‘pax’ (previously thought to be only used in private schools), and ‘fainites’ a definitely poor third. Without further research, it is impossible to say whether the geographical pattern reported by the Opies has completely broken down, or whether the Croydon area is anomalous. It is quite conceivable that major changes have taken place in the nearly 30 years between the Opies' and the Rouds' research, as seven or eight generations of schoolchildren have passed through the country's junior schools in that time, which is the equivalent of over 140 years in adult generation terms.

In most historical sources, it is taken for granted that the truce word is accompanied by crossing the fingers, and in many cases the truce only lasts while the fingers remain crossed. Again the Croydon survey revealed several other gestures, although crossed fingers was by far the most common. At some schools, boys and girls made different gestures. Further work on truce terms is certainly needed.

Opie and Opie, 1959: 141–53;Ian Beckwith and Bob Shirley, ‘Truce Terms: A Lincolnshire Survey’, Local Historian 11:8 (1975), 441–4;Kate and Steve Roud, ‘Truce Terms in Croydon, Surrey, 1988’, Talking Folklore 7 (1989), 15–20.

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