I'm writing a proposal for a fun, illustrated impulse-purchase or gift book on the origins and lives of fascinating phrases. Here's a draft of a sample entry (all (c) 2006 by yours truly, thank you very much). I appreciate receiving suggestions of phrases to be included, as well as resources that reveal their fascination.
“Ollie, ollie, oxen free”
When Clara yelled it into the Italian duomo’s bell tower in The Light in the Piazza, this humble backyard phrase had finally made it to Broadway.
But it was already a classic. Nearly everyone who’s ever played hide-n-seek has heard or yelled it dozens of times as the ritual that ends a round of play. But what do a boy’s name and a team of unyoked plow animals have to do with the game? Nothing at all. What we’ve yelled and heard for years is a simple corruption of this end-of-game declaration: “All the, all the outs in free!” Even when someone yells each word carefully, players hiding yards away may still hear the corrupted form – which is why it is with us. And despite our hearing the wrong words, we still know what the yell means: Everyone still in hiding – “the outs” – can come in without fear of being “it,” because someone else already is, and another round is ready to begin.