Farewell from the oche Eric Bristow

Last week (5 April 2018) saw the passing of Eric Bristow, the five times World Darts Champion known as the Crafty Cockney. He is no longer at the oche. As one sports commentator cleverly wrote, Bristow died at the age of treble twenty, sixty being the highest achievable score with one dart. Reading of Bristow’s  death was bitter-sweet—it was sad to find that he had died but it also brought back memories of my time in England in the late 1980s.

To me, heading to England in my twenties (as it has been for many Australians) was a cultural pilgrimage. I absorbed as much as I could of the history and culture that was on offer while being fascinated by the everyday life of England.

One of the most extraordinary cultural differences between Australia and England was the big event television coverage of darts and the celebrity status of the darts players. Bristow was one of the biggest stars and, although I didn’t know it then, had had much to do with the rise of darts as a television sport in the 1980s.

Darts is an indoor game popular in English pubs that takes many of its traditions and language from archery. Where an archery target is made up of concentric circles with the highest scoring ring being in the centre, the darts target (the dartboard) is made up of 20 numbered segments from 1 to 20 with a centre “bullseye” of two circles (the inner one worth 50 and the outer 25), a band around the outside which scores double the segment value and a mid-band that scores you treble. Darts are hand-thrown from the throw line (toe line) most often called the oche (to ryhme with hockey). It is generally 7 feet 9 14 inches from the face of the dartboard, measured horizontally (that is 2.36855 metres)!

So to farewell Bristow from the oche I looked into the origin of the word. It is an unusual word and its origins are much debated but not properly known. There proved to be a lot of speculation about it and much written. I was unable to solve the mystery but this is a summary of the key theories.

  • The popular story (completely debunked) is that a West Country brewery, S Hockey and Sons, produced beer crates that were three feet long which when three were lined up, measured the original oche distance of nine feet. Wonderful story but no such brewery ever existed.
  • Hockeying is also slang for spitting and one common theory was that the oche was determined by the (standard?) spitting distance from the dartboard.
  • The academic solution is that oche comes from Middle English ochen meaning to cut or slash which is related to Old French ochier to notch but there is no conclusive evidence connecting it (as the earliest written accounts, not even a hundred years old, refer to the line as a hockey).
  • It might come from skittles—hockey was used to mean the throwing line in Aunt Sally, a skittles-type game played mainly in Gloucestershire and parts of the southern counties. Whether this derived from oche or vice versa is not known.
  • Eric Patridge, the Australian-educated, British author of A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English(1937) suggests a relationship with hoggins linehoggins being early 20thcentury slang for getting your due share (particularly of sexual pleasure). It is not known how he made the link.
  • World Wide Words has a suggestion that it derives from the 19thcentury phrase hockey-dockies for shoes (this type of duplication was very common in slang terms of the time)—that is, a hock-dock where hock is slang for the foot and dock slang for where you place them. Therefore a hock-dock is where you place your feet.

So to farewell the Crafty Cockney from the oche, we should vote for the last suggestion—as it is almost Cockney rhyming slang to get from hockey-dockie to oche. Rest in peace, Eric Bristow.