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I always assumed that the idiomatic phrase home free had its origin in baseball, and at least one relevant dictionary seems to confirm this.

Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, Houghton Mifflin 1997 (online) home free In a secure or comfortable position, especially because of being certain to succeed [...] This expression probably alludes to safely reaching baseball's home plate, meaning one has scored a run. [Mid-1900s]

But a different dictionary suggests the idiom is used in both America and Australia, which is easily confirmed by examples from Australian publications (emphasis in examples is mine):

Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms, Cambridge University Press 1998 (online)
be home free American & Australian to be certain to succeed at something because you have finished the most difficult part of it [...]

Australian Broadcasting Corporation: "The servile, unquestioning friendship with George Bush, which dragged our government into Iraq and saw it defend Guantanamo Bay, is just another distant chapter in our feted alliance history. The Australian government lawyers who said it was legal are also home free."

Sydney Morning Herald: "Another round of Senate estimates questions next week and the week after a new AFP brief to the DPP on possible criminal charges means Reith is still not home free."

Given that baseball is, in my understanding, a little-known sport in Australia, this appears to call into question the assumption that home free originated with this sport. What is the best available information we have about the origin of the phrase?

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    I always related this to "hide n' seek"...also oxen free, which I never understood. – Cascabel Jul 15 '18 at 18:34
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    Yeah, I would associate it with "hide n' seek". – Hot Licks Jul 15 '18 at 18:36
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    Baseball isn't a particularly big sport in Australia, but it is still very well known here. The phrase could easily have originated in reference to baseball in the US, and still ended up in relatively common use in Australia. – user1751825 Jul 16 '18 at 3:43
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    OED provides an 1896 quote from Dialect Notes v1, p396, for the use in sports and games: "In hi-spy and similar games a player is said to be home free when he ‘touches the gool’ before it is touched by the person who is ‘it’." The use in sports and games likely derives from much earlier use (e.g., 1569) with reference to prisoners and slaves delivered 'home free'. – JEL Jul 17 '18 at 8:45
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    @JEL: The source cited by the OED at Google Books. – njuffa Jul 18 '18 at 3:53
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It's a metaphor, and while it may have some use in baseball, it's more likely to have originated in children's games like hide-and-seek that have a "home" place which is the goal of players.

When a game ends, for instance, there is a characteristic call to bring in the other players, saying, essentially, everybody can come home without being caught. Where I grew up, it was something like "All-ie, all-ie outs in free" (though some said "oxen free" or "ocean free" because it was funnier, or more traditional).

Home free, by itself, is rather like the first (good) meaning of all downhill from here; it means that the hard part is over, and we're all good from now on.

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This is the phrase used by children playing "hide n' seek" upon reaching "home base".

a hider must yell "free" when he touches base or he can still be tagged out. But if the seeker tags another player before reaching home base, that person becomes "it."

I do not know how that dictionary relates baseball home with "home free". The usual term upon reaching home (or any base) untagged in baseball is "safe".

There is also "olly olly oxen free", which I have never understood. It should be remembered that a child's dialect is usually based on the perceived language of adults , and is often misunderstood or mis-interpreted.

  • As soon as I can determine when this phrase was first used in the game, I will edit it in; but I suspect it goes back as far as when children played this game (in English), and that must be a very, very long time ago. – Cascabel Jul 15 '18 at 18:48
  • Google ngram suggests that the phrase in its current figurative use may have come into use around 1960, which jibes with Ammer's assertion that the origin dates to the mid-1900s. Given that the game of hide & seek has apparently been around for centuries, it is curious that figurative use would have started this late, and it is not clear what might have prompted it. – njuffa Jul 15 '18 at 19:13
  • @njuffa Yeah, I would think that too, but I have problems with n-grams sometimes. It could have been in use for quite some time before being used in a journalistic sense. – Cascabel Jul 15 '18 at 19:37
  • Yes, it seems a rather childish expression. – Deonyi Jul 15 '18 at 21:52
  • I've always believed olly oxen free was from all the outs in free, but I can't remember whether I read something with evidence for that or just thought it sounded logical. – 1006a Jul 16 '18 at 2:43

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