Q From Garry Vass: I’m an American working in London. While watching some children play tag in a playground, I noticed that several of them, from time to time, would cross their fingers over their heads and shout something like vanitz. This seemed to signify that they were out of the game temporarily. Do you have an idea what this word was?
A That’s a sharp observation of a bit of children’s language. It means just what you say, to call for a pause or truce in a game. It’s variously spelt, as fainites, faynits, or fains, all of which are a slight corruption, or a running-together, of fain I, or fain it. In fact, it’s often said as though it’s spelt “fain-its”. The word is school slang dating from at least the 1870s, but it was a dialect term earlier still. It’s a form of fend, which at one time had a meaning of “to forbid”. Another version current last century was fen, often said as ven.