What Does Olly Olly Oxen Free Mean?

Olly olly oxen free is a phrase most commonly used in children’s games, especially when playing hide and seek, to signal that other players are safe to come out of hiding. But intuitively, this phrase makes little sense.

Where did the phrase olly olly oxen free come from anyway? Let’s dig into this a little bit deeper and finally figure out what it really means.

Olly Olly Oxen Free Meaning

According to some language experts, “olly” is a variation of the phonetic spelling “all ye”. Think along the lines of the popular Christmas carol O Come, All Ye Faithful.  All ye means “all of you”.

But what does “oxen free” mean? Most likely “oxen” is a youngster’s mispronouncing of “outs in” or better yet “out are”. Oxen free would then mean something along the lines of “outs are free”.

So putting it all together, olly olly oxen free translates from childish gibberish to “all of you, all of you, out are free”.  In plain English, this would mean “all who are out can come in free”.

Variations of Olly Olly Oxen Free

Since olly olly oxen free is a children’s saying, there really isn’t a correct spelling of the phrase. The phrase was most likely passed orally from one child to another without an adult writing the phrase down.

That’s part of the reason there are so many different ways to say and spell the phrase.  Some different variations of olly olly oxen free are:

  • Ollie ollie oxen free
  • All-y all-y oxen free
  • All-ay all-ay oxen free
  • All ye all ye come in free
  • Oly oly oxen free
  • Olly olly octen free
  • Olly olly awk in free
  • All ye all ye outs in free
  • All the all the outs in free
  • Alle alle auch sind frei

This last one here—alle, alle, auch sind frei—is actually a German phrase that translates to English as “all, all also are free”. Could this phrase perhaps have been a German saying that English children started using? To me, this is the most likely explanation. Do you agree? Let me know in the comments below.

Next Steps

I often question the origin of words and phrases. Rather than research it and move on, I like to write blog posts to help people with the same curiosity. Check some of my other etymology-related blog posts here.

Also, if you have any questions, let me know in the comments below.

4 thoughts on “What Does Olly Olly Oxen Free Mean?”

  1. Ha Ha! As a kid we used something nebulous but sounding like ” Olly Olly owse en free!” Little did I know it was a terrible pronunciation of the German phrase!
    I have no idea why we used that phrase being irish/italian.

  2. I remember as a child: but
    After the end of a game when someone who was hiding was found or otherwise the ending of a game then we would yell “Ally ally in free”. It was probably a bygone variation of “All all ye (you) all ye (you) in free” Quite possibly in a time much distant from my childhood time there were little boys and girls yelling “all of you are (can come) in free”. Hard to say. It was long ago and far away. The world was simpler than today. You can never go home again.


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