Posted by: Jack Henry | June 7, 2017

Editor’s Corner: King’s Double-Cross

Dear readers,

Last week I wrote an article on King’s X, based on a blog by The Grammarist. According to the blog, King’s X is a term that is used in the American South, to indicate “time out” in the middle of a game.

I received quite a few emails about this term, and not a single person agreed with The Grammarist! Many of you from the South said that you’d never heard that term. The two people that had heard kids say “King’s X” or hold their fingers up in an “X” to indicate “time out” witnessed it from British kids!

I decided I would try to get to the bottom of this mystery. I emailed The Grammarist, but I have not heard a peep from the authors there. Here is what I have found:

King’s X is an American band that “combines progressive metal, funk, and soul with vocal arrangements influenced by gospel, blues, and British Invasion rock groups.” (More at Wikipedia.)

King’s X

According to Merriam-Webster, King’s X is defined as: “used as a cry in children’s games to claim exemption from being tagged or caught or to call for a time out.” Then they use an example from Robert Frost, an American poet: “…how they make haste to cry with fingers crossed King’s X —no fairs to use it any more.”

And finally, from the British blog, The Phrase Finder:

King’s X

Where did the phrase ‘King’s X’ come from? My husband says it to mean “stop—go no further with that.” I have read that some people that that it means to cross your fingers. I want to know about the meaning and origin of what my husband uses it for. (Teresa)

In Reply to: King’s X posted by Teresa on February 26, 2009:

King’s Cross has been the name of a place in North London since 1830, when a monument to King George IV was built there. The actual "king’s cross" is long gone, but the name is preserved in the name of the major railway terminus built there in 1852. Any use of this specific place-name can be no older than that. However, it has been absorbed into the very ancient system of children’s "truce terms"—the phrase, sometimes with an accompanying gesture, that children use to gain respite in a game. There is a huge variety of these in Britain, mostly (but by no means all) variants on eight basic types: "fains", "barley" (typically accompanied by the holding up of the thumb), "keys", "skinch" "scribs", "cree" "kings" and "crosses" (accompanied by crossing the fingers"). ("Pax" is used by middle-and-upper class children who go to fee-paying schools; unlike the others it is not a dialect term.) So, it seems that your husband comes from some region where the terms "kings" and "crosses" overlapped. If he is of British origin one would assume that it was the existence of the famous railway station that made it natural to merge them into one; but the Dictionary of American Regional English records the use of "kings cruse" (in an adult fight) as early as 1778. See here:

So there you have it. It seems to me that it is more British than American, but I can’t find any definitive source either way. I’d definitely stick with “time out” if I were to visit the South to play tag or some other game!

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

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