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One, Two, Three, Alairy…

By Anatoly Liberman

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
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 blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. Judith Neaman

    I grew up in upper New York state and, more than sixty years ago, oleary was the ball-bouncing and sometimes skip rope jumping refrain then.

  2. Maureen Nicholls

    My Mother (born 1910) lived in the East End of London and she used to sing “One, two, three Aleary, My ball’s down the area, Don’t forget to give it to Mary, Early in the morning.” An ‘area’ was the space in front of a basement, usually with stairs down to the servants entry.

  3. Pat Eldred

    I was delighted to find this explanation of the game and comments on the derivation of what I thought was the word “O’Larry.” I grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota in the 1940s but could find no one (even in my age category)who recalled the game or the refrain.

  4. Laura Chejlava

    Growing up on the south side of Chicago, we competed against other playgrounds in “O’Leary” I recall there were 20 + exercises. After learning the exercises we then had to learn/compete doing them within a small circle painted on the floor.

  5. Carol Kardos

    As a child in Cincinnati in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, my recall of the o’leary chant is “… ten o’leary, post man” with the right leg swung over the bouncing ball on the word o’leary. No idea where “post man” came from. We did not play in groups – it was a way of playing when alone.

  6. Nora Mitchell

    Anatoly Liberman’s very interesting suggested derivation receives some support from the version that we used to play in 1940s Jamaica, but which I have never heard anywhere else in quite this form. Instead of “O’leary” we used to say “Levay” (ending “one postman”). I have often wondered since if the word was French (influence from Haiti?); if the essential feature of the bouncing ball game is the swinging of the leg over the ball it seems to me that it could be, with “Levay” being originally “levez” (i.e. raise your leg). Perhaps a Francophone reader could shed some light on this. Of course as practiced in playgrounds the game had much more to it than swinging the leg over the ball. We used to play it as a ball bouncing group game. The order of difficulty was (more or less): (1) Straight bouncing, patting the ball on the syllable “vay” (2) The same, but with crossed feet [Interesting in the light of the Piers Plowman explanations] (3) With uncrossed feet but clapping instead of bouncing on “levay” (4) Making a circle with the thumbs and index fingers and making the ball pass through it on “levay” (5) The same, but doing it twice, saying “levay-levay” — some game-leaders used to continue with levay-levay-levay; (6) Spinning round during “levay” (7) swinging the right leg over on “levay” (8) Swinging the left leg over on “levay” (9) Swinging both legs over, which only the most agile could do. By that time the bell ending the school break generally rang.

  7. William Hastings

    In Canada in the 1930s girls used to sing One two three Alaura; four five six Alaura; seven eight nine Alaura; ten Alaura Secord.
    As you will note from the following, Alaura makes much more sense than Alery.
    Laura Secord was a heroine of the war of 1812.
    Laura was born in Massachusetts in 1775, and moved, with her family, to Upper Canada (now known as Ontario) in 1795. Apparently, her family was at odds with the newly established US government. The next year she married James Secord, and they moved to Queenston, Upper Canada. When the Americans invaded in 1812, James was wounded, and the Americans billoted themselves in the Secord house. In 1813, when Laura learned of a planned American attack on a Canadian post, she walked 20 miles to warn the Canadian garrison. The Americans were defaeted in the ensueing battle at Beaver Creek, and almost all of them were captured.
    This implies that the rhyme may have started in Canada, then migrated to the U.S., and England.

  8. Marsha

    We used this rhyme when bouncing a ball on the sidewalk in Canada. “One, two, three a lerry, I saw my Auntie Mary, sitting on a chocolate cherry, in the middle of January”. Every time the syllable rhyming with “lerry” was said, we had to raise our right leg over the bouncing ball. This was a game you played all by yourself.

  9. Mitsu Sundvall

    When I was a 5 yr old (1942) in the WWII concentration camp at Topaz Utah for Japanese Americans, we used to pass the time away in the laundry room/latrine where the ball bounced good on the cement floor: “One two three a-larry, shame on brother harry, kissed a girl her name was mary, in the month of January one, two, three–” counting the bounces to see how many times you could throw your leg over the ball

  10. Linda Stevens

    Under Area (architecture) – Wkipedia identifies The airey as a lightwell and says it is the subject of the ball-bouncing rhyme that begins:
    One, two, three alairy
    My ball is down the airey
    Don’t forget to give it to Mary
    Early in the morning

    That said, in California, where I grew up, we said, One, two, three O’Leary, four, five, six, O’Leary, etc. I do not remember that it ever ended. You just tried to get as high as possible in numbers before “missing.”

  11. PhilipHolt

    My memory of this is the same as that of Maureen Nichols above. My mother born 1918 in Chelsea I believe used to recite this to us children as she played with either one or two balls against a wall. The House she was brought up in was near the Worlds End on the Kings Road and it had an “area”. I always believed the game was unique to her and her sisters because of this. Not until Des O’Connor released his song did I realize otherwise.

  12. PhilipHolt

    PS I have recorded a whistled version of the tune she used if you’d like it. I don’t know how to attache to this comment

  13. patricia duval

    i find it so interesting that the rhyme one two etc is so universal.the last line as i recall was 7 8 9 alary 10 alary catch me I never saw the word alary spelled out so am guessing i grew up in northern ontario canada in the forties and fifties. I played a long ball game throwing the ball against a house that startedwith ordinary,moving,laughing,talking,one hand,the other hand,one foot,etc anyone remember this??

  14. Jill Goodwin

    I remember playing this ball game, between 1952 and 1957, in Christchurch, New Zealand, although I never thought about how to spell it! We took it in turns to bounce the ball against a wall. It was a competitive game, to see how far you could get in your turn. After ‘7, 8, 9 Alairy’, it was ’10 Alairy catch the ball’. At each ‘ALAIRY’ the action would be the special one in something like this order: under the leg; under the leg and a clap; between the held-out skirt and the arm; spin right around; spin around and a clap; and the last one was ‘blind’.

  15. Bryan Szaflarski

    My Grandmother taught me this song when I was about 6 or 7. She grew up in Wisconsin, about the 30s or 40s. She sang “one, two, three, o’larry…” her’s was a bouncing game with a leg lift on the “o’larrys”; But, for the life of me I can’t remember how it went after nine. I’ve been wondering if it was somewhere on the internet. Lo, and behold, this was the first hit on Google. good on ya for all the info!

  16. Jan Stedman

    My mother was born in 1907 in the East End of London and she played this game of bouncing a ball each time on the 1 2 3 and passing it under her leg and up to bounce off a wall at the aleary, and airey. Her rhyme went as follows…
    123 aleary,
    My ball’s down the airey,
    Please can you get it for me,
    Early in the morning.
    In the East End of London an airey was the basement flat, of a large house.It makes more sense that children playing this game would want someone to get their ball if it fell into the area in front of the airey.

  17. Billie Kelpin

    When I was a little girl in Milwaukee, WI, we played the bouncing ball game as described in the first paragraph. However, my assumption is that allaire (however it may be spelled) is the name of a flower. One, two, three allaire, 4,5,6 allaire, 7,8,9 allaire, 10 allaire USA.It was followed a poppy, carnation, nasturtium, and finished up with a lady’s slipper which involved bouncing the ball while swinging right leg over, then left leg over, then clapping with ball in bottom palm. All were flower names, but I never realized this until a started to garden! So for us in Milwaukee, it was a game using names of flowers. However, I can’t seem to find the spelling of the flower “allaire”(?). I need to youtube this game which was actually quite difficult in getting through all the maneuvers. I ADORED playing it.

  18. Lynda

    Late in the discussion: As a ball bouncing song, we used to sing (late 50s, Canada)

    One, two, three, alary,
    My first name is Mary.
    If you think it’s necessary,
    Look it up in the dictonary.

    The “alary” beat was a bounce under your leg.

    Alternatively,

    One, two, three alary,
    Four, five, six alary,
    Seven, eight, nine, alary,
    Ten alary, Catch Me!

  19. Lynda

    I have a really odd one. In the late 50s we used to put a ball in a nylon stocking and then stand, back against the wall, bouncing it on either side of you. You could really get it going if you had an India rubber ball. Could be dangerous as well! LOL. The rhyme we used is still with me:

    P, K, pick-a-packet,
    First you chew it
    Then you crack it,
    Then you put it in your packet,
    P, K, pick-a-packet.

    Each time the ball bouncing became more involved. Over your head and between your legs, diagonal, short stocking, long stocking. PK was a kind of gum popular at the time. Not sure if it’s still sold in Canada.

  20. Irene Johnson

    In 193 Holloway North London we sang “One two three Alary. My balls gone down the dairy”. My mother said the dairy was the area steps.

  21. Irene Johnson

    I forgot to add it was also sang whilst bouncing a ball and crossing the legs over until you were OUT.

  22. Karen

    My grandmother, born in Massachusetts in the 1920’s used to sing us this song. “1,2,3 always,y first name is Mary, don’t you think that I look cute, in my brother’s bathing suit.” she would bounce a ball and at the end of each line, she would lift her leg over the ball. We used to love playing it with her.

  23. Mary Olson

    My mother, who was 1/2 Irish, taught me this game in the 50’s in MN when I was 6. We sang 1,2, 3 O’Larry, 4,5,6 O’Larry, 7,8,9 O’Larry, 10 O’larry postman. Each time we said O’Larry we circled the ball with our leg while it was on the bounce. We would repeat the verse increasing the number of leg rotations based on the number of times we sang the song….1st time – circling the ball once each O’larry. 2nd time – circling the ball twice per O’larry, then 3, 4, and so forth until you missed. Glad others remember this game also!

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