This American Children’s Rhyme Isn’t So American After All . . .

CA Hunter

Remember eeny, meeny, miney, moe?

A group of kids get together to play a game of Tag. Or, maybe they’re in the middle of a kickball game and the ball’s flown over into nasty Mr. Hunchguts’ yard. In both scenarios, who is it? Which of the rosy-faced children will be designated the chaser in Tag, or the (gulp) fetcher of the kickball from haunted Hunchguts’ thorn bush?

The children don’t suddenly slip into chaos trying to figure “it” out—they possess a rhythmic selection-procedure, parts of which have probably been around in some form for centuries. It goes something like this: 

Eeny, meeny, miney, moe,
Catch a tiger by the toe,
If he hollers, let him go,
Eeny, meeny, miney, moe.

The kid chanting and finger-pointing—probably the most popular rascal in the group—might decide to add something like:

O-U-T spells OUT and you are not it

or, to keep everyone in heart-pounding suspense:

My mama told me to pick this one (right over here) and you are not it

Bright, anxious eyes watch the finger point to each kid in rhythm with the words and syllables of the chant. The group of prospective chasers and fetchers dwindles with each repetition of the incantation until . . . the chanter finally gets right down to “it.”

Eeny, Meeny around the world

Counting-out rhymes, like this one, were popular decision-making tools for children years ago and are still used today. And, this particular rhyme isn’t only found in the US; kids in England, France, Denmark, Germany, and Zimbabwe all make decisions using similar-sounding rhymes. Despite language differences, the first lines of each version are remarkably alike. Check it out:

England: Eeny, meeeny, mony, my,
Barcelona, stony, sty,
Eggs, butter, cheese, bread,
Stick, stack, stone dead!

(one version of several; they also chant the US variation above):

France: Une, mine, mane, mo,
Une, fine, fane, fo
Maticaire et matico,
Mets la main derrière ton dos.

Denmark: Ene, mene, ming, mang,
Kling klang,
Osse bosse bakke disse,
Eje, veje, vaek.

Germany: Ene, tene, mone, mei,
Pastor, lone, bone, strei,
Ene, fune, herke, berke,
Wer? Wie? Wo? Was?

Zimbabwe: Eena, meena, ming, mong,
Ting, tay, tong,
Ooza, vooza, voka, tooza,
Vis, vos, vay.

There isn’t a clearcut explanation as to how these global variations came about and to provide one would require knowing definitively where Eeny, Meeny comes from (which is, alas, impossible). Is it originally American? British? Dutch? Some theories outlined below take a stab at the American chant’s birthplace. But, it gets a little complicated because parts of the rhyme probably come from different places and times.

What evidently happened is that a smorgasbord of both English-speaking and multilingual kids on playgrounds around the world independently picked up variations of Eeny, Meeny and made their own versions. They inserted different nonsense words and sounds that were easier to pronounce in their different languages. These counting-out rhymes are evidence of pre-internet virality: If enough kids like the nonsense, they’ll start repeating and remixing it! 

So, do we have at least a rough idea of where this rhyme comes from? Not really. But, there are a few far-flung and fascinating stories that, when put together, form an interesting picture. Let’s take a look.

Eeny, meeny, miney, moe . . . so many origin theories it’s like woah

Divine pagan rituals: Versions of the rhyme have existed since before 1820. But, some folklorists propose it goes back much further, suggesting that counting-out rhymes like Eeny, Meeny originate from Ancient Celtic rituals of sorting out who would be chosen to die as a punishment or, perhaps, a sacrifice.

Interestingly, Dutch scholars had the same idea. In the 1950s, a Dutch language historian proposed that the first line “eeny, meeny, miney, moe” comes from “anne manne miene mukke,” the first line of an ancient heathen priest song in which the chanter supplicates the high priestess for a divine sign about who should live or die.

Children on playgrounds today may very well be our best evidence of these theories: One need only glance at their panicked facial expressions to know that choosing who’s “it” is a life-or-death situation.

Ancient British: Less fatalistic is the theory that “eeny, meeny, miney, moe” traces back to an old British counting system with a name that sounds like the results of an ancient soccer match: the Anglo-Cymric Score.

In the 1700s up to the early 1900s, variations of the Score were used in the UK and the US by fishermen needing to take stock of the day’s catch, shepherds and farmers accounting for their animals, and women keeping track of rows in knitting. Versions of the Score include:

northern England, southern Scotland: yan, tan, tethera, methera, pimp 

Ireland: eina, mina, pera, peppera, pinn 

US: Een, teen, tether, fether, fip 

It’s not hard to see why children would use a playful variation of (essentially) “one, two, three” to count down their options. Counting off has always been a way to group and identify things.

West African Creole: In the 1980s, the linguist Derek Bickerton proposed that “eeny, meeny, miney, moe” was a transformation of a phrase in Saō Tomenese, a Creole language spoken in islands off the coast of West Africa—and a language which would’ve been spoken by some African slaves in the 1800s. The English nonsense phrase sounds a whole lot like ine mina mana mu, which means “my sister’s children” in Saō Tomenese.

Bickerton admitted he had no evidence to support his theory, but he proposed that American children in the 1800s, aware of other counting-out rhymes (like those ancient Anglo-Scores above) might have picked up a familiar sound pattern in this Creole phrase, provided the children actually heard it. If they did hear it, and heard it enough, they could have incorporated these Creole sounds into a new rhyme.

Ostensibly, Bickerton was suggesting these American children would have heard Saō Tomenese spoken by their family’s slaves. Even though this Creole theory is without any supporting evidence, it brings us to an unfortunate segment in Eeny Meeny’s history.

Eeny, Meeny takes a dark turn 

The diverse origins of the first line “eeny, meeny, miney, moe” are plausible but contested. The second line in the American rhyme, “catch a tiger by the toe,” has a clearer and more dismal ancestry that traces right back to the United States. 

Some of you may be surprised to learn that, in the 1880s, the object of the “catch” wasn’t a tiger but a n****. Even though slavery was officially over, the century after the Civil War ended would prove to be a time of tremendous racial tension in the US. Racial hatred and prejudice were sometimes reflected in the language, and even—as Eeny, Meeny indicates—articulated from the mouths of babes.

As the decades of the 20th century passed (beginning in the 1950s), the context of the rhyme began to change and words like tiger, tinker, and piggy replaced the racist term.

It’s safe to say that the last few generations of children chanting this rhyme had (and have) no idea of the racist connotations it once had. For them, the rhyme retains a childhood innocence; it’s a fun way to make a choice. Learning about the rhyme’s unfortunate racist usage in the past provides one small (eeny?) example of how we’ve made great endeavors to move away from a time when an entire population had no choice at all.