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July 18, 2009


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Belinda Young

I grew up in Hampshire and we used to say 'Scribs'. I happened to say this the other day when playing a game with my children and now they use it too!

My (now ex) husband was from Wigan and they used to say 'Barley'.

Virtual Linguist

Thanks, Belinda. Scribs is another new one! Barley seems to be connected to the North West. Thanks for reading, and commenting.

Margaret Graham

In West Cumbria in the 60s it was "skinch" with fingers crossed, which I see the Opies said was associated with Durham and Northumberland. These areas have quite a bit of dialect in common, partly because of the mining influence as well as Nordic derivations.

Virtual Linguist

Thank you, Margaret. What a lovely word!

Stanley Gallagher

When I was a boy living in Oldham, Lancashire, to call a one-person truce in a game, one would put up two thumbs, and say, "barley".

A few years ago, I read (in a place not remembered now) that at tournament grounds in mediaeval times, there was a stretch of ground that was protected by law, in which no combat might be engaged in. At its beginning and at its end, this special ground had a wooden post, which defined it. These posts were carved with a "barley-sugar stick" twist design. Anyone within that area, though he may have been a knight competing in the lists, was protected from any assault. He was said to be "fey" (I take this to mean: as if protected by fairies or other supernatural powers). If all this is true, it would explain the practices referred to above, allowing for corruption of words across regions and generations.

Virtual Linguist

Thanks, Stan. That's a fascinating idea of a possible origin of the term 'barley'. I've just tried to search for the point on Google, but couldn't find anything - not that that signifies anything. I'll keep looking out for information on medieval tournaments. Thanks for reading, and for the comment.

Stanley Gallagher

After my posting (see above), I remembered that the explanation I cited was seen by me on the Internet. Since then, I have looked for it in vain, and it seems to me that the reason for its disappearance is that it is not correct and the person that put it forward has taken it off the Web.

Through my taking the explanation given above at face value, I mentally suppressed my original thought on the matter, in favour of what I thought was an authoritative explanation. My thought was that probably, "barley" is a corruption of "parley" (taken, of course, from the French "parlez" — to talk). It means a truce, as everyone knows.

Virtual Linguist

Thanks, Stanley. I've just checked in the OED and they say that barley probably does come from parley/parlez.

It's a very rare event that someone removes something from the internet because it's wrong information, so we ought to celebrate that, I suppose.


I remember this from 1960s Liverpool but my father-in-law also quoted it as 'barley mow'.

Virtual Linguist

Thanks, Graham. I've heard the term 'barley mow' but not in this context, so that's interesting.


In Morton, Derbyshire ca 1960, we said 'keys'. In the early 1960's in Cheshire/Stockport, we said 'barleys'

Virtual Linguist

Thanks, Wayne. Interesting that a couple of other people from other parts of the country have mentioned 'keys'.

Stanley Gallagher

Hello, anyone still interested. At last, I found the source of the information that I cited above (on 6/7/2013). It was an answer (not given by me, of course) to a correspondent with the Daily Mail (and not, as I believed when I cited it, on the Internet). What I saved (and subsequently found on my hard drive) is pasted in, below:

This item was clipped from the Daily Mail’s Answers To Correspondents, Sat. 3/2/07 (this is my own saved reference-note, re what follows)

Question: As children, we used the word “vainites” (with crossed fingers) to exclude ourselves temporarily from a game of “It”, Tag or British Bulldog. What are Its origins?

“VAINITES”, ‘“fainites”, “fey knights” or “fains” was a cry for truce or respite from a game. Its origins are probably in the French feign-, the present stem of feindre — to pretend or shirk (source of the English “faint”) — and ultimately in the Latin fingere, meaning to fabricate (source of our “fiction”, “figure” and “figment”).

There’s anecdotal evidence that the word was derived from the woven barley-type decorations placed on poles at each end of the rail used to separate medieval knights when jousting. On completion of each challenge, they would continue to ride into this neutral area, where no combat was allowed — “fey knights”.

In the North-West region, the phrase “barley” is used by children in the same way. Used by adults, when something is “barley” it is out of order (as in “I’m not having that, it’s out of order!”). Alternatively, “I’m barley” denotes one is sitting on the fence and not committing to or taking part in something." END OF PASTE-IN.

It would be interesting if the person that originally wrote the above could be asked where he or she obtained this information.

Virtual Linguist

Thank you, Stanley. Yes, I'm sure lots of people are still interested. This post gets a lot of hits. How fascinating - especially about the connection between fainites and barley. Many thanks for looking this up and going to so much trouble.

Ben Davis

Growing up in Perth West Oz 1970s we used barley but my wife and friend from NSW/Queensland had never heard of it.

Virtual Linguist

Thanks, Ben. Friends of mine from other parts of the UK have never heard of barley either. Odd how the little pockets exist both in the UK and Australia.

Alan James

During the 60's I grew up in Shirley, Warwickshire, now the West Midlands, 6 miles from Birmingham centre. We always said barley and crossed our fingers if during any game we were unable to play for some reason. Particularly useful in tag. It was deviously used, in a playful way, when making a promise that you did not intend to keep. You made your promise, but kept your crossed fingers hidden, which stopped it being a binding promise.

Virtual Linguist

Sounds just the same as we did in Liverpool in the 60s, Alan. Thanks for reading and commenting.


The term "barley not on" was used in Liverpool and Lancashire, when playing tick or tig up until the 1960s. Well-meaning schools started to ban running in playgrounds for safety reasons, and these games and terms just faded out. I left England in the 1970s, returning a couple of decades later to find many common English words had "evolved" to be replaced by Americanisms, or just faded out. One that springs to mind is forehead, usually prounounced "forred" or "forrid". This was replaced by the spelling variant of "fore-head". Another is brassiere, always pronounced brazz-e-er. Now smart people on TV use the American pronunciation of "bra-zeer". When I left there were millions of clerks, the term used for anyone doing an office job. it was pronounced, "clark". The job title disappeared and when the U.S. film "Clerks" came out, British people re-discovered the term but pronounced it the American way.

Virtual Linguist

Thanks for reading, and for your comment, Phil. Very interesting.

Anita Tansey

1950's Nth Herts: fainites


I was born in a lancashire village 1937 - in the school playground a "truce" was called by standing on one leg and saying "barley".
I now have 4 great-grandchildren aged 5 to 11 years, all lancashire born, who surprised me the other day by using the word "barley" as a truce word.

Virtual Linguist

Thank you for that, Joan. It's great to hear that 'barley' is still being used.

Adrian J Digby

fainites was the only accepted tuce word - often pronounced with a v rather than a clear f, in Harlow New Town from 1953-1964. In Suffolk, in the 1960s I heard barley and skinch except for the boarding kids that used 'exes'; which was considered by us dayboys as a 'posh' term.

Adrian J Digby

I forgot to add "pax" to my last post . That was also used by kids from out of the area from public schools and the like but it was not accepted by the rest of us as being far too posh to be accepted and was the source of ridicule and soon forgotten.

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