“Pax!” we would shout, often out of breath and usually with our fingers crossed and held aloft for all our tag-mates to see. It might have been a stitch, or a shoelace that had come untied: something made us have to excuse ourselves from the game — just temporarily, for a brief and necessary time-out — and no-one, not even our arch opponents, could catch us or call us out during the time we had called for our own truce. I’m sure it’s something most of us remember from our playtime in the schoolyard.
Pax is what is called a “truce term”, and it was the one I remember using as a child in England in the 1960s. You might remember another one from your playground days, the most common ones being fainites or fains (or vainites), barley, keys, skinch, cree, crosses and kings in the UK, pegs and nibs in New Zealand, and variants of barley in Australia and of time-out in the U.S. These verbal exclamations that kids use to excuse themselves temporarily from play (or battle) have a long and sturdy historical presence in childhood lingo, and interestingly don’t really endure into adult vocabularies. They’re rarely written down, given their colloquial and youthful context (and this explains partly why people are often unsure about whether it’s fainites or vainites), but they’re generally unequivocal in their meaning and force: few kids will flout or ignore the authority of a truce word, especially if it’s delivered with the usual accompanying gesture of crossed fingers (or the equivalent). Which specific words are used by which kids is determined more by region than anything else, with the exception of pax — the Latin word for “peace” — which is associated more with social class than location, being used predominantly in private schools in England.
Peter and Iona Opie did much of the research on truce terms back in the ’50s and ’60s in the UK, and they recorded roughly 45 such words, plus variations, as well as identifying the most popular and enduring ones as listed above. For the linguistic and geographical origins of these common words — from barley to keys, crosses to kings (and all their equally colorful variants), this Wikipedia article gives a comprehensive summary. The Opies also noted several words that were unique to certain towns and districts and didn’t travel outside their local boundaries: bees, blobs, croggies, denny, keppies, locks, peas, peril, nix, truce, snakes and twigs. The Opies’ research is detailed in their 1959 book The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, which offers a rich and colorful history of all the truce terms, among other childish utterances. Jonathan inquired specifically about the origins of fains/vains and fainites/vainites on the Ask Glosso page, so I’m quoting the Opies below on this subject.
Please add any other truce terms you remember from your own childhood (including the location) in the comments section below.
“Fains or fainites: The usual term in London, and throughout southern England from Margate to Penzance — except for the ‘scribs’ and ‘screams’ of East Hampshire, and the ‘bars’ of Devon. Also prevails north of London as far as Olney, and Maids Moreton where ‘fains’ and fainites’ share currency with ‘kings’. Children are often uncertain whether the word begins with an f or a v, expostulating that they have never before been asked to spell it. Variations include: ‘fennits’ (particularly in Kent), ‘fannies’ (Laverstock), ‘fainies’ (Maryon Park), ‘fainsies’ (Taunton), ‘fans’ (Gillingham), ‘fails’ (Poole), ‘faylines’ (Torquay), ‘vainlights’ (Peckham), ‘vainyards’ (Lancing).
‘Fains’ appears to be the earliest form. ‘Fains or fain it — A term demanding a “truce” during the progress of any game, which is always granted by the opposing party’ — is recorded in Notes and Queries, 4th ser., vol. vi, 1870, p.415, and said to be in common use by London schoolboys. ‘Faints’ is not recorded until Barrère and Leland’s Dictionary of Slang, 1889; ‘fainits’ not until Farmer and Henley’s Slang, 1891. ‘Faynights’ is said by a correspondent to The Sunday Times, 25 November 1951, to have been in use about 1900. Professor J. R. R. Tolkien told us that both the terms ‘fains I’, I decline (p. 140), and the truce terms ‘fains’ or ‘fainites’, are survivals of medieval English, the basic expression being ‘fain I’. ‘This descends from fourteenth century feine, faine, “feign”, in a sense derived from Old French se feindre, “make excuses, hang back, back out, especially of battle”.’ He noted that the word fen, ‘ban, bar’ (p. 140) is probably derived from fend, shortened form of defend, since defend was used in the French sense forbid from about A.D. 1300 to the time of Milton. ‘The formula fain I‘, he added, ‘seems to throw light on a line in Chaucer which no editor so far has thought worthy of a note, though its transitive use of feyne has no exact parallel. In the Clerk’s Tale, 529, a servant says “that lordes heestes mowe nat been yfeyned”, and seems to mean that “lords’ orders cannot be treated with a ‘fain I’ (I decline), but must be obeyed”.'”
Thanks to Jonathan for raising this interesting subject.