April 16, 2015 | by Adrienne Raphel
“Eeny, meeny, miny, mo” and the ambiguous history of counting-out rhymes.
Eeny, meeny, miny, mo
Catch a tiger by the toe
If he hollers, let him go
Eeny meeny miny mo
“Eeny meeny miny mo” is one of those rhymes that’s ingrained in our cultural limbic system—once we hear the first two syllables, the rest unspools whether we want it to or not. No one knows what eeny or meeny might mean; everybody knows what “eeny meeny” means. It turns up in strange places: in Pulp Fiction, in the Great Vermont Corn Maze, in Justin Bieber songs. But where did eeny meeny come from? Kipling tells us that “Eenee, Meenee, Mainee, and Mo / Were the First Big Four of the Long Ago,” but that’s not such a good lead.
What we do know is that once Eeny Meeny appeared on the scene, it was everywhere. In the fifties and sixties, the formidable husband-and-wife folklorists Iona and Peter Opie recorded hundreds of varieties in England and America, including, to name just a few:
Hana, mana, mona, mike,
Barcelona, bona, strike,
Hare, ware, frown, venac
Harrico, warrico, we, wo, wac
Eena, meena, mina, mo,
Cracka, feena, fina, fo,
Uppa, nootcha, poppa, tootcha,
Ring, ding, dang, doe
Eeny, meeny, mony, my,
Barcelona, stony, sty,
Eggs, butter, cheese, bread,
Stick, stack, stone dead
Jeema, jeema, jima, jo,
Jickamy, jackamy, jory,
Hika, sika, pika, wo,
Jeema, jeema, jima, jo
Not only are there hoards of Eeny Meenies, there are just as many counting-out schemes that share the same DNA. “Hinty, minty, cuty, corn, wire, briar, limber lock” (United States). “Eenty, teenty, ithery, bithery” (England). “Ippetty, sipetty, ippetty sap, ipetty, sipetty, kinella kinack” (Scotland). And I’d be remiss in omitting “One potato, two potato, three potato, four / Five potato, six potato, seven potato, more,” which flirts with replacing eeny meeny as the counting-out gold standard in the United States.
In the canonical Eeny Meeny, “tiger” is standard in the second line, but this is a relatively recent revision. If it doesn’t seem to make sense, even in the gibberish Eeny Meeny world, that you’d grab a carnivorous cat’s toe and expect the tiger to do the hollering, remember that in both England and America, children until recently said “Catch a nigger by the toe.” The nigger-to-tiger shift is one of the rare instances where changes in the rhyme happen in such an explicit and pointed fashion. The rhyme morphs constantly, but usually ad hoc, and each kickball court has its own particular flavor based more on random chance; one child’s popular improvisation might catch on and change the rhyme in a certain region for decades.
Many variations of Eeny Meeny have cropped up through mishearing, the way a game of Telephone or Chinese Whispers retains the sound of the original but mangles the sense. Some are mondegreens, a term coined by the author Sylvia Wright when she heard “And laid him on the green” as “And Lady Mondegreen.” (“ ’Scuse me while I kiss this guy” is a mondegreen for Jimi Hendrix’s lyric “ ’Scuse me while I kiss the sky”, and Taylor Swift’s long list of ex-lovers are lonely Starbucks lovers.)
Other Eeny Meeny varietals arose through the process of Hobson-Jobson, that is, when words from another language are homophonically translated to fit the phonology of the native speaker’s tongue. (“Hobson-Jobson” is an Anglo-Indian corruption of the Muslim festival cry “Yā Ḥasan! Yā Ḥosain!”; “punch,” originally meaning a drink with five ingredients, is a Hobson-Jobson of panj, meaning “five.”
So, le Eeny meeny in France:
Une, mine, mane, mo,
Une, fine, fane, fo,
Maticaire et matico,
Mets la main derrière ton dos.
Ene, mene, ming, mang,
Osse bosse bakke disse,
Eje, veje, vaek.
Eena, meena, ming, mong,
Ting, tay, tong,
Ooza, vooza, voka, tooza,
Vis, vos, vay.
But at their core, counting-out rhymes tend to be very conservative. In 1830, children in Scotland chanted:
As I sat on my sooty kin
I saw the king of Irel pirel
Playing upon Jerusalem pipes.
In the 1950s:
Saw the King of easel diesel
Jumping over Jerusalem wall
“Irel pirel” to “easel diesel” is easy to figure out: When you say a set of phrases over and over, the ends and beginnings blend into each other, as when “Work it work it work it work it” becomes “twerk.” So Scottish kids in the fifties, used to hearing “diesel” elsewhere, heard it for “pirel” here.
The shared genetics of all these counting-out ditties strongly imply an ür-Eeny Meeny. And several folklorists have proposed various etymologies based on the content of some versions of Eeny Meeny, trying to derive significance from some variation of the gibberish. These prehistories range from charmingly whimsical to patently bogus.
In the nineteenth century, for instance, the historian John Bellender Ker strung together several arbitrary strings of Dutch words that sounded like English counting-out rhymes, claiming these ditties originated as corruptions of stupid Dutch. And yet, as his contemporary Henry Carrington Bolton pointed out, Ker’s argument is akin to deriving the word Middletown from Moses: “By dropping ‘oses’ we have the root ‘M,’ and on adding ‘iddletown’ we have ‘Middletown.’ ”
In 1982, similarly, Derek Bickerton postulated that the rhyme derives from Saõ Tomenese, a Creole language spoken by African slaves. The Saõ Tomenese phrase ine mina mana mu, meaning “my sister’s children,” bears a very close phonological resemblance to “Eeny, meeny, miny, mo.” The original “Catch a nigger by the toe,” according to Bickerton, points to the rhyme’s roots in an African American community.
But there may be an answer when we search for sound instead of sense. Eeny Meeny traces its ancestry to an ancient British counting system: the Anglo-Cymric Score. Across northern England and southern Scotland, a set of numerals exists for specific, ritual purposes: shepherds use it to count sheep, women to keep track of knitting, fishermen to harvest their catch. Peasants knew the system for centuries as “Yan tan tethera.” Rhythmically, the score divides into fives (think number of fingers per hand), with a pronounced lilt and an emphasis on rhyming pairs. Words vary from region to region, but the score goes something like this:
Yan, tan, tethera, methera, pimp,
Sethera, lethera, hothera, dovera, dick,
Yan-dick, tan-dick, tether-dick, mether-dick, bumfit,
Yan-a-bumfit, tan-a-bumfit, tethera bumfit, pethera bumfit, gigert.
Similar counting scores exist in Ireland (Eina, mina, pera, peppera, pinn) and in the United States (Een, teen, tether, fether, fip). Knapp and Knapp paint a picture of English settlers teaching a version of the shepherds’ score to Plymouth Indians, thus explaining why American children refer to this type of rhyme as “Indian counting.” More likely, however, is that children heard a rhyme of unknown origin and ascribed it to a foreign culture. “Chinese counting” bears no relationship to actual Chinese counting. Like Eeny Meeny rhymes, the numerals are primarily for counting, not arithmetic: just as you wouldn’t think to subtract miny from mo to get eeny, one doesn’t necessarily add tethera to tan to get pimp. In these scores, the rhythm and ritual of the whole are more significant than the meaning of each individual component.
Hickory, dickory, dock. Georgie, Porgie, Pudding ’n Pie. The shepherds’ score is pervasive. And once we start listening, we can hear “yan, tan, tethera” on beyond counting-out rhymes. Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder, Blixem. John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt. Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo. Itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny yellow polka-dot bikini.
Yet even the solution of the ancient Anglo-Cymric Score, as it turns out, is a chicken-and-egg: which came first, the counting-out system or the counting-out rhyme? The shepherds of that shepherds’ score might be entirely apocryphal. The anthropologist Michael Barry, who conducted an exhaustive study of these shepherds’ scores, failed to find a single instance of anyone who could recall an actual shepherd using the score to count his sheep. Just as Indians didn’t use “Indian counting,” it’s entirely possible that shepherds might never have used the shepherds’ score. Indeed, the earliest recorded uses of the counting-out system are in counting-out rhymes—so the origins of “Eeny, meeny, miny, mo” might, it turns out, be nothing more and nothing less than Eeny, meeny, miny, and mo themselves.
Adrienne Raphel is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently a Ph.D. student at Harvard, where she writes about poetics and plays word games. She contributes regularly to The New Yorker online, and her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Lana Turner, the Boston Review, and Prelude, among other publications.