The Racist History of “Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe”

photo with a green tint of five boys and girls playing in a classroom

A group of kids gets together to play a game of tag and nobody wants to be “it.” The children don’t suddenly slip into chaos trying to decide who “it” is going to be—they possess a rhythmic selection procedure, parts of which have probably been around in some form for centuries. It goes something like this:

Eenie, meenie, miney, moe,
Catch a tiger by the toe,
If he hollers, let him go,
Eenie, meenie, miney, moe

Every kid waits in suspense, hoping the last moe doesn’t land on them. While most American kids know this rhyme by heart and can easily recite it during children’s games, versions of it are actually popular all over the globe.

Eenie, Meenie 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:

Eeny, meeny, mony, my,
Barcelona, stony, sty,
Eggs, butter, cheese, bread,
Stick, stack, stone dead!
(one version of several; they also chant the US variation above)

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

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

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

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 Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe 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.

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Although it seems weird that a similar rhyme would emerge all over the world, researchers believe that it could have simply resulted from different children learning which sounds go well together. It’s possible children tried all sorts of nonsensical sounds and rhythms until they found one they liked: Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe and its variants just happened to win out most of the time because it was pleasant to hear and say, like most nursery rhymes.

Nevertheless, there are as many theories as to the origin of Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe as there are variations. Let’s take a look at some of them.

The origin of this nursery rhyme

Versions of the rhyme have existed since before 1820. But, some folklorists propose it goes back much further, suggesting that counting-out rhymes like Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe originate from Ancient Celtic rituals of sorting out who would be chosen to die as a punishment or, perhaps, a sacrifice. In this theory, the words Eenie, meenie, miney, moe are thought come from the Celtic words for the numbers “one, two, three, four.”

Interestingly, Dutch scholars had the same idea. In the 1950s, a Dutch language historian proposed that the first line Eenie, Meenie, 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.

Speaking of counting, a less fatalistic theory is that Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe traces back to an old British counting system known as 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.

While there does seem to be a lot of evidence to support the counting origin of Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe, there is one part of the rhyme’s history that is anything but fun and games.

Eenie, Meenie takes a dark turn 

The diverse origins of the first line Eenie, meenie, 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. 

Prior to the popular variation used today that involves catching tigers, a common American variant of the rhyme used a racist slur against Black people instead of the word tiger. This offensive variation was widely used until around the 1950s when kid-friendly variations that instead use words like tiger, tinker, and piggy became commonplace. In this case, we say the kids had the right idea to go after those tiger’s toes.

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