WHERE DOES THE WORD OCHE ORIGINATE?
This is one question that I am asked time and time again and one for which I can only offer a theory.
‘Oche’ as a word meaning the throwing line that a dart player stands behind to throw his or her darts is comparatively recent, being introduced by the British Darts Organisation in the mid-1970s. The actual word is believed to be derived from Old Flemish meaning a ‘notch’ or ‘nick’.
However, when the game of darts was first standardised in the 1920s, the word used in tournament rules was actually ‘hockey’. This word was used by the News of the World for their individual darts competitions from the late 1920s onwards. The word ‘hockey’ had previously been used to mean ‘a line from which you throw’ in the game of Aunt Sally a skittles-type game played mainly in Gloucestershire and parts of the southern counties. Whether or not the original word was ‘oche’ and was misheard and turned into ‘hockey’ is pure speculation.
The derivation of the word ‘oche’ is obscure but my best guess is that it derives from the word ‘hockle’ an old English word, utilised more in the North of the country than anywhere else and meaning ‘to spit.’ Given that darts was originally played in the public bar or vault of the English public house where the floor was often covered in sawdust and the room liberally furnished with spittoons, my theory is that the ‘hockey’ line was determined by the length that a given player could spit from a position with his back to the dartboard.
As far as I know no one else has tried to solve this mystery and even the Oxford English Dictionary cannot help! Anyone who has any alternative theory is invited to drop me a line.
However, BEFORE YOU DO THAT, please do not tell me that the word has its origins in a brewer in the West Country of England called ‘Hockey and Sons.’ I know that’s what many darts websites declare as fact but it is completely and utterly untrue. The ‘Hockey and Sons’ theory runs like this:
The original regulation throwing distance for darts – nine feet – was first established in a pub served or owned by the brewers S. Hockey & Sons, a company well known in Dorset, Devon and Cornwall which used to deliver their bottled beer in wooden crates exactly 3ft (0.91m) long. After darts became popular in West Country pubs at the turn of the twentieth century, in about 1908, several pubs in Portsmouth decided to place three ‘Hockey’ beer crates end to end to determine exactly a nine feet (three crates x 3 feet) throw line. After a few months the brewers’ name had been adopted by all the players and from that time the throw line became known as the ‘hockey’.
This theory was first published in 1981 when, even then, it was described as ‘an entertaining explanation of the derivation of the word ‘hockey’’. Despite this warning about the credibility of the claim, the Hockey & Sons theory spread like wildfire and eventually became historical ‘fact’. Even though it is complete and utter fiction, the theory has been featured in numerous darts books and darts websites and become part of darts’ folklore.
Let us be absolutely clear. There has never ever been a brewer anywhere in Britain called ‘S. Hockey & Sons’. This was confirmed in the early 1990s by those who know about such things at the Brewery History Society – www.breweryhistory.com – a society of which I am proud to be a member.
Darts did not reach the West Country until much later than 1908. Folks in Dorset, Devon and Cornwall played skittles, not darts, and it was not until the 1970s that darts proved popular but, even then, skittles ruled – and still does to a great extent today. The ‘Hockey & Sons’ theory is pure invention. It is a complete fabrication – and I know who fabricated it!
Apart from that load of old drivel I am prepared to listen to any other theories, provided they can be backed up by evidence. Please let me have your ideas via my Contacts page.
Original article posted September 2002, revised August 2019; all text ©2009 Patrick Chaplin