Girls, in some parts of England and the United States, say, or rather chant, while bouncing a ball: “One, two, three, alairy, four five, six, alairy,” and so on. According to an “eyewitness report,” they say so, while bouncing a ball on the ground, catching it with one hand, keeping the score, and accompanying each alairy with a circular swing of the leg, so as to describe a loop around but not obstruct the rising ball. Each time alairy is said, another author explains, the player lifts her right foot over the ball, crossing the right leg over the left, but where I wrote alairy, she heard aleary, changed by folk etymology to O’Leary. Other people knowledgeable in such matters also report that the nonsensical word sometimes rhymes with airy and sometimes with eerie. O’Leary may be left to his (her?) ghostly fate, but where did girls learn the word alairy/aleary?
Counting out rhymes and children’s verbal folklore is astoundingly conservative. Empires collapse, rulers come and go with promises of the kingdom of heaven on earth, but Russian girls keep saying: “Eniki, beniki, sikolisa/ Eniki, beniki, ba!” (The stressed syllables are highlighted.) Only a hopeless dullard will try to find the etymology of such gibberish. Right? Not really. Those who have read The Annotated MOTHER GOOSE know how deep the roots of such gibberish may be. Children’s games are sometimes the last resort of ancient customs that have lost their religious significance.
Several scholars have tried to guess the origin of alairy/aleary, and, as often happens in etymology, have offered the same explanation, unaware of the attempts of their predecessors. In a long and famous poem by William Langland (ca.1332-1400), titled Piers Plowman, a gang of impostors is described. They are beggars feigning bodily defects. Some leide here leggis a-lery, as suche losellis cunne, that is, “some laid their legs a-lery, as such abandoned wretches (louts, scoundrels) know how to do…” There is some disagreement over how they “laid” their legs, but, apparently, the result was that the beggars looked as though they had only one leg or no legs at all. They pretended to be cripples, in order to arouse compassion and extort alms. The trick is no secret to actors who have to impersonate a one-legged character, for example, Long John Silver in Treasure Island or invalids with one limb amputated. It must have been practiced by mountebanks since the beginning of creation. Alery never occurs in other Middle English texts, and even contemporary scribes seemed to have trouble with it, for they wrote a leery, a liry, a lyrye, a liri, and alery or substituted another word for it. According to a plausible suggestion, Langland used a cant term badly understood outside the circle of professional mendicants.
The meager information we have about Langland has been culled from his poem. He was born in Shropshire (in the west of England) but later moved to London. According to one of the histories of English literature, he was a kind of clerical vagabond and earned his bread by singing Paternoster, Placebo, Dirige, the Psalter, and the Psalms for the souls of those who contributed to his support. He must have spent days and months on the road and acquired firsthand knowledge of the ragtag and bobtail he described.
The prefix a- in a-lery, etc. goes back to on (as in Modern Engl. atop, aboard, and so forth). The Old English noun lira has also been attested, and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has the entry lire “flesh, muscle, brawn” (obsolete except Scotch and northern dialectal). Whatever the status of alery in Middle English might be, Old English lira was not a chance word. It turned up several times and had unquestionable Scandinavian cognates. But “on the flesh” is hard to interpret, and the line from Piers Plowman has been tentatively translated “made their legs lame, acted as if paralyzed” and “crossed their legs or thighs.” The second translation, suggested by Walter W. Skeat, the author of the poem’s first academic edition, fits the modern girls’ chant perfectly (he offered his translation, without referring to the chant, which he had probably never heard), but it takes the edge off the beggars’ trick, for what is so pathetic about crossing one’s legs? I think Skeat was right, even though we do not quite understand what the cross-legged posture meant.
Is it possible that an obscure, extremely rare word should have come down to us in a children’s game? To begin with, lire, as we have seen, is not obsolete in the northern part of Great Britain. Second (and here I can add something to what I have found in the works of other researchers), while reading Charles Mackay’s 1877 book The Gaelic Etymology of the Languages of Western Europe and More Especially of the English and Lowland Scotch, and of their Slang, Cant, and Colloquial Dialects, I ran into the curious cant word chickaleary “aged pedestrians on winter mornings” (evidently, a collective noun). The book, as one can conclude from its title, is useless (a ludicrous tribute to Celtomania in etymology), but Mackay knew both branches of Gaelic and northern English, very well, so that all the forms he cites are reliable. I was struck by the amusing specificity of the word chickaleary, a word that Mackay, predictably, derived from a Gaelic compound.
In light of what has been said above, the origin of chickaleary is almost obvious. It designates elderly people, unsteady on their feet because they are still drowsy and because on a frosty morning roads are slippery (I assume that chickaleary is indeed a collective noun). Criminals’ wicked sense of humor is famous. Those potential victims of robbery were “chicks.” Their legs were often “aleary,” they stumbled and fell down. While helping them rise from the ground, one could pick their pockets. The a in the middle of the word is the same as in jack-a-napes, rag-a-muffin, and cock-a doodle-doo. It may be a relic of on or of, but sometimes it is inserted for rhythmic purposes.
If my idea has merit, Middle Engl. alery has survived as a cant word (it has been vulgar throughout its history) and in an innocent girls’ game. Let us note that the scholar who suggested that Langland’s word must have been cant did not know Mackay’s book, while Mackay was, most probably, ignorant of the occurrence of alery in Piers Plowman. It remains to be said that leer “malicious look,” leery “distrustful” (derived from leer), and German leer “empty” have nothing to do with the word discussed here.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”