"giant steps"/ "may-I"

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Sat Jul 8 03:16:16 UTC 2006

On 7/7/06, Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at yahoo.com> wrote:
> Neither of these is in OED, though both name for the children's game were
> current in NYC in the mid '50s.  "Giant steps" should be included because
> Neil Armstrong's words from the Moon alluded to it.
>   1926 _Elementary School Journal_ (Feb.) XXVI 427: A group of children
> were playing a game of "May-I" in connection with their language work.

It is a bit surprising that the OED3 revisions haven't covered "May
I?", or the name I heard as a kid, "Mother May I?". But both are
mentioned in a cite from the Opies in the entry for "step, n.":

1f. Chiefly pl. Any of various children's games (see quots.). Cf.
Grandmother's (Foot)steps s.v. GRANDMOTHER n. 1d.
1909 J. H. BANCROFT Games for Playground 188 Step... The object of the
game is for the players who are lined up in the rear to advance
forward until they cross the line where the counter is stationed
[etc.]. 1940 N. MARSH Surfeit of Lampreys (1941) ix. 127 The childish
game of Steps in which, whenever the 'he' has his back turned, the
players creep nearer. 1969 I. & P. OPIE Children's Games vi. 189 'May
I?' as the usual name, but sometimes the game is known as 'Steps',
'All Sorts', 'Walk to London', 'Variety', or 'Mother, May I?'.

>   1953 Douglas Wallop _Night Light_ (N.Y.: Norton) 67: I want to play Giant
> Steps. I'm having fun.

(Hmm... too early to be a Coltrane fan...)

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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