Headmaster’s Thoughts – May 2014

I thought I would discuss truce terms of my youth. You might wonder why, and the answer is that truce terms have disappeared for the very happy reason that this generation of boy students at good schools do not physically fight. At least at York Prep, they do not seem to fight at all. Hooray! I cannot remember (I am happy to say) the last fight at school.

My generation was not so pacific. Going, as I did, to an all-boys primarily Irish school in North London, we fought, played roughly, and generally shoved our way around until we were fourteen when, somehow, we started to act like young gentlemen. But there were rules to our fights—strong rules that (by reputation, although I never saw it happen) you would be “sent to Coventry” for breaking. That expression, which dates back to the Cromwellian Revolution in England, meant that none of your peers would talk to you. Effectively, you would be completely ostracized in school. A heavy penalty indeed!

And here is where the rule of a truce would come in. At any time in a fight, a boy could cry out “fainites,” a call that immediately stopped the fight permanently if the boy gave in at that point, or temporarily if something had happened which needed to be fixed before the fight went on. That “something” could be as trivial as shoe laces becoming undone or a bloody nose. Regardless, that magical truce term halted the action.

“Fainites” would also stop a game briefly until the problem was resolved. If we were playing rugby on a field and a passer-by stepped into a critical area where they could be run over by the scrum, “fainites” would halt the game until the passer-by was safely away.

In fairness, I should say there were other rules to fights: no hitting below the belt, no kicking or biting or fighting with anything but your hands. If a boy was actually hurt (a very rare occasion), then the fight stopped immediately and the boy was taken to the Phys Ed teacher, and if a boy fell to the ground the fight was stopped. But “fainites” was usually called long before any of these rules came into play. No one had to explain: truce was truce!

Over fifty years later, I have finally looked up on the Internet the origins of the word “fainites.” I have discovered that it is a nineteen fifties and sixties word and (strangely) very local in use, and particularly common in North London. By the seventies, the word had disappeared (I feel like a character in history).

The Internet, accepting contributions to its knowledge base from anyone interested, has many versions of how the word became the truce term of its time. Urban Dictionary states that “fainites was a “1960’s North London (UK) playground slang/shout used to opt out of a game temporarily or to prevent your being tagged in a game … said to be derived from the Old English ‘Fain would I’ which meant ‘I don’t want to’.” That sounds sensible, and maybe we were the only ones who used it in a fight (as opposed to just stopping a game) because we were a primarily Irish school and, let’s face it, Irish boys enjoy fighting (although to be fair, they do not like to hurt anyone).

The next site, World Wide Words, while agreeing with the fundamentals of the meaning, thought that “fain I” was a dialect form of “fend” which meant to “forbid.”

Since one can look up so many dictionaries on the Internet, I proceeded to the next one, called the Free Dictionary, which believed that the truce call came from the Old French “se feindre” in the sense of “to back out, especially in battle.”

On to Wikipedia, which seems to have become the Encyclopedia Britannica of the younger generation (although clearly not as accurate), and where there is a long article about this short cry. It refers to the folklorists lana and Peter Opie in their 1959 book The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren. They give a number of truce cries and quote J. R. R. Tolkien (yes, the man who wrote The Lord of the Rings) as agreeing that the word “fainites” does indeed descend from the Old French “se feindre” meaning to “make excuses or back out of battle.” Tolkien goes on to propose that this understanding is the only way to interpret line 529 of Chaucer’s “Clerk’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales, “lords heestes mow nat be yfeynedm,” which translated (he says) becomes “Lords cannot be declined.” Wikipedia notes another translation of the Anglo-Norman word “feindre” is to “pretend, feign or turn a blind eye to” and states that “is what the more powerful child does whilst granting respite.”

At this point my reader (I doubt there is more than one) might want a truce from this etymology of such an obscure term. I concede I became obsessed (I have that tendency) with the word, and thought about why, beyond sentimentality, a childhood term caused me not only to recall it now but relentlessly pursue its origins on the Internet.

I was for the first time struck with its importance in my early years; “fainites” was our shared ethical code for stopping short of harming your fellow man, a means to resolve conflict with all parties retaining dignity. “Fainites” helped to lay the moral foundation to convert roughhousing boys into young gentlemen with a sense of boundaries.

Whether Latin, old French, or archaic English, the truce cry of my youth is used no more. Unfortunately, as all of us can read every day, fights have become gang-related with frequently fatal results and the use of real weaponry. It is difficult to call truce when both of you have knives or guns to inflict instant injury. Let’s face it: mine was a very different age when the magic of the call prevented any real harm being done. Inculcating a “fainites”-type truce in violent youth culture would surely reduce their fear, save lives, and open more opportunities in their lives.

I asked my wife if they had a similar expression in her New York childhood, and she thought “stop” was a good one. Stop! There is no interesting etymology to “Stop!”

And now, dear reader, it is time for you to cry “fainites” to this whole discussion.

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org

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