Conkers are the fruits of the Horse Chestnut Tree and are also known as the Aesculus Hippocastanum.There are at least three theories as to the meaning of ‘horse’.
Firstly horse chestnuts were originally fed to horses to improve their coat. Secondly the scars left on the twigs after the leaves have fallen appear in the shape of a horseshoe. The scar even appears to have horseshoe nail holes. Alternatively ‘horse’ might be a corruption of the Welsh word ‘gwres’ which means ‘hot, pungent, or ‘fierce’. Conkers are the bitter fruit of the horse chestnut, whereas the usual chestnuts are sweet and mild so his latter explanation is persuasive. However,the theory would need to overcome the question as to why the English would give a Welsh language name to a tree which arrived in England direct from the Balkans in the 16th Century and why the living Welsh language doesn’t use this term to refer to the tree or to conkers.
The fruits of horse chestnut were not used to play the game of conkers until the 18th Century. Before that the game was played with a variety of hard objects attached to the end of a string, typically cobnuts or hazel nuts. Sometimes even snail shells were used. The fruits of the tree develop with the conkers inside. The conkers are encased in thick prickly skins and become ripe in late Summer, Conkers are not suitable for human consumption. Apart from their bitter taste conkers contain saponins (chemicals similar to soap). They can however be eaten by farm animals. For this purpose conkers are soaked in lime water to reduce their bitterness or alternatively soaked overnight in water to be ground up and mixed with the rest of the animal fodder. But conkers are reputed to have other uses. They can be carried in the pocket in the hope of preventing rheumatism and piles, and some people keep conkers in the wardrobe to deter moths. Some even believe that hiding conkers behind the furniture can keep spiders out of the house.
The Game of Conker
It was only in he mid 19th Century that the game of conkers using horse chestnuts became widespread. The first game using the nuts is recorded on the Isle of White in 1848. Before that the game of conkers was played with other nuts or hard objects on the end of strings. The name for the fruit derives from the game, and not the other way around. ‘Conque’ in French means ‘conch’ and in English dialect ‘conker’ means ‘hard nut’. Influence may also have come from the word ‘conquer’. Early games before the horse chestnut was used to play it had been called ‘conquerors’. Other (unlikely) derivation might be that the word is an onomatopoeia. An onomatopoeia is a word which sounds like the noise it is describing. Like ‘oink’ or ‘moo’, The theory is that ‘conker’ is the sound the object makes when it hits another object such as a human skull. One game also called ‘conkers’ consists of throwing Horse Chestnuts at one another over a wall or a fence. Regionally conkers are variously known as ‘cheesers’ (conkers with a least one flat side), ‘cheggies’ and ‘obblyonkers’. Even the word ‘cheggers’ was used in Lancaster as far back as the 1920s, long before the TV Star Keith Chegwin claimed a monopoly on it, and in at least one D H Lawrence book the game is called ‘cobblers’. Yet another variation on the origin of the name conkers is the rhyme which used to be chanted in Worcestershire. ‘Obli oblionker –my first conquer’. The word ‘oblionker’ was a term without meaning invented to rhyme with ‘conquer’ which is said to have mutated into the name ‘conkers to describe the nuts itself.
- Drill a hole in some hard, large conkers . Alternatively the holes can me made by piercing the conkers with a nail. But an electric drill starting with a small drill bit and increasing the size causes less damage to the inside of the conkers and helps with the hardening process
- Hardening is achieved by leaving the conkers for a long time or soaking them in vinegar overnight and baking then in the oven. Painting conkers with glue is frowned upon let alone varnishing them or pumping superglue down the drilled shaft of the conkers
- In any event a piece of string is threaded down the hole and a knot tied to stop the conker falling off
- The game is played with two people
- The game is started with a toss of the coin to decide who has first go
- The players take turns hitting each other’s conkers using their own. One of the conkers dangles on the string and the other player swings his to try to hit it
- The conker which eventually breaks is the loser
- New conkers are known as none-ers meaning they haven’t conquered anyone else’s
- If a none-er wins against another none-er it becomes a one-er. Winning conkers inherit the accumulated points of the loser plus a point for winning that game. So if a ‘two-e’r beats a ‘four-er’ he becomes a ‘seven-er’. It is not clear how the number of points is verified from one appearance to another or even whether they are the same conkers. There is ample opportunity for controversy and general falling out in these proceedings.
The hardest conkers are usually the winners. Conkers are hardened by keeping them for at least a year or by the various vinegar and baking tricks. In Liverpool and Ireland old conkers are called ‘seasoners’ or ‘laggies’ Difficulties occur because some methods of hardening are regarded as cheating whereas others are not. Why for example is keeping conkers for year considered cheating whilst some other enhancement treatments not? At some contests competitors have been banned from bringing their own conkers whereas the Campaign for Real Conkers argues that this is ‘regulation gone mad’. The main World Championship conkers event also restrict competitors to the conkers provided. At the British Junior Conkers Championships on the Isle of Wight in October 2005, contestants were banned from bringing their own conkers due to fears that they might harden them. The Campaign For Real Conkers claimed this was an example of the type of over-regulation which was causing a drop in interest in the game and does seem to take a great deal of the skill out of the game. It’s one thing to guard against competitors varnishing and pumping glue into the conkers but quite another to stop competitors exercising their skill in drilling a good hole