Eeny, meeny, miny, moe
"Eeny, meeny, miny, moe" — which can be spelled a number of ways — is a children's counting rhyme, used to select a person in games such as tag. It is one of a large group of similar rhymes in which the child who is pointed to by the chanter on the last syllable is either "chosen" or "counted out". The rhyme has existed in various forms since well before 1820. and is common in many languages with similar-sounding nonsense syllables.
Since many similar counting rhymes existed earlier, it is difficult to ascertain this rhyme's exact original.
A common modern version is:
- Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,
- Catch a tiger by the toe.
- If he hollers, let him go,
- Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.
There are many common variations, such as replacing tiger with "piggy", "tinker", "tigger", a two-syllable name, etc.; and changing the verb in the third line to "screams", "wiggles", "squeals" or another verb.
Sometimes additional lines are added at the end of the rhyme to draw out or manipulate the selection process or make it seem less predetermined, such as:
- My mother told me/says to pick the very best one, and that is Y-O-U
Occasionally the line copies 'Ip dip':
- Not because you're dirty,
- Not because you're clean,
- Just because you kissed a boy and girl behind the magazine.
The first record of a similar rhyme, called the "Hana, man," is from about 1815, when children in New York City are said to have repeated the rhyme:
- Hana, man, mona, mike;
- Barcelona, bona, strike;
- Hare, ware, frown, vanac;
- Harrico, warico, we wo, wac.
Henry Carrington Bolton discovered this version to be in the US, Ireland and Scotland in the 1880s but was unknown in England until later in the century. Bolton also found a similar rhyme in German:
- Ene, tene, mone, mei,
- Pastor, lone, bone, strei,
- Ene, fune, herke, berke,
- Wer? Wie? Wo? Was?
Variations of this rhyme, with the nonsense/counting first line have been collected since the 1820s, such as this Scottish one:
- Hickery Pickery, pease scon
- Where will this young man gang?
- He'll go east, he'll go west,
- he'll go to the crow's nest.
- Hickery Pickery, Hickery Pickery
More recognizable as a variation, which even includes the 'toe' and 'olla' from Kipling's version, is:
- Eenie, Meenie, Tipsy, toe;
- Olla bolla Domino,
- Okka, Pokka dominocha,
- Hy! Pon! Tush!
This was one of many variants of "counting out rhymes" collected by Bolton in 1888.
A Cornish version collected in 1882 runs:
- Ena, mena, mona, mite,
- Bascalora, bora, bite,
- Hugga, bucca, bau,
- Eggs, butter, cheese, bread.
- Stick, stock, stone dead – OUT.
It is worth noting that the opening to this counting rhyme, "ena mena", is almost identical to the Greek for "one by one" ("ena m'ena").
- ubi eni mana bou,
- baji neki baji thou,
- elim tilim latim gou.
The rhyme inspired the song "Eena Meena Deeka" in the 1957 Bollywood film Aasha.
Most likely the origin is a centuries-old, possibly Old Saxon diviner rhyme, as was shown in 1957 by the Dutch philologist dr. Jan Naarding, supported by prof. dr. Klaas Heeroma at the Nedersaksisch Instituut (Low Saxon Institute) at the University of Groningen. They published their findings in an article called Een oud wichellied en zijn verwanten (An old diviner rhyme and its relatives). In part I of the article Naarding explains, why the counting rhyme he found in Twents-Achterhoeks woordenboek (1948), a dictionary by G.H. Wanink, stands close to an early mediaeval or even older archetype. That same version was recorded in 1904 in Goor in Twente by Nynke van Hichtum:
- Anne manne miene mukke,
- Ikke tikke takke tukke,
- Eere vrouwe grieze knech,
- Ikke wikke wakke weg.
Naarding calls its origin 'a heathen priest song, that begs the highest goddess for an oracle while divining, an oracle that may decide about life and death of a human'. The first lines can be translated as 'foremother of mankind, give me a sign, I take the cut off pieces of a branch (= the rune wands)." This explanation was revived and extended in 2016 by Goaitsen van der Vliet, founder of the Twentse Taalbank (Twents Language Bank). The last line of the rhyme (in the Netherlands degenerated to 'iet wiet waait weg') can be translated as 'I weigh it up' (in Dutch 'ik wik en weeg').
American and British versions
- Eeny, meena, mina, mo,
- Catch a nigger by the toe;
- If he hollers let him go,
- Eena, meena, mina, mo.
This version was similar to that reported by Henry Carrington Bolton as the most common version among American schoolchildren in 1888. It was used in the chorus of Bert Fitzgibbon's 1906 song "Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo":
- Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo,
- Catch a nigger by his toe,
- If he won't work then let him go;
- Skidum, skidee, skidoo.
- But when you get money, your little bride
- Will surely find out where you hide,
- So there's the door and when I count four,
- Then out goes you.
It was also used by Rudyard Kipling in his "A Counting-Out Song", from Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides, published in 1935. This may have helped popularise this version in the United Kingdom where it seems to have replaced all earlier versions until the late twentieth century.
Iona and Peter Opie pointed out in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes that the word "nigger" was common in American folk-lore, but unknown in any English traditional rhyme or proverb. This, combined with evidence of various other versions of the rhyme in the British Isles pre-dating this post-slavery version, would seem to suggest that it originated in North America, although the apparently American word "holler" was first recorded in written form in England in the fourteenth century, whereas according to the Oxford English Dictionary the words "Niger" or "'nigger" were first recorded in England in the sixteenth century with their current disparaging meaning. The 'olla' and 'toe' are found as nonsense words in some nineteenth century versions of the rhyme, and it could possibly be that the original 'Where do all the Frenchmen Go?' (probably originating during one of the periods of Anglo-French warfare) was later on replaced by the earlier version in the United States, using some of the nonsense words.
There are considerable variations in the lyrics of the rhyme, including from early twentieth century in the United States of America:
- Eeny, meeny, miny moe,
- Catch a tiger by the toe.
- If he hollers make him pay,
- Fifty dollars every day.
During the Second World War, an AP dispatch from Atlanta, Georgia reported: "Atlanta children were heard reciting this wartime rhyme:
- Eenie, meenie, minie, moe,
- Catch the emperor by his toe.
- If he hollers make him say:
- 'I surrender to the USA.'"
A distinct version of the rhyme in the United Kingdom, collected in the 1950s & 1960s, is:
- Eeeny, meeny, miney, mo.
- Put the baby on the po.
- When he's done,
- Wipe his bum.
- And tell his mother what he's done. (Alternatively: Shove the paper up the lum)
Versions collected in New Zealand in 2002 include:
- Eeny, meeny, miny mangi,
- Catch a mangi by the tangi.
- If he squeals, steal his wheels,
- Eeny, meeny, miny mangi.
In Latin America the children play a game to choose or discard players, or to draw a winner/loser, singing:
- De tin marín, de dos pingué,
- cúcara mácara títere fue.
- Yo no fuí, fue Teté,
- pégale pégale a quien fue.
Another Latin American Version:
- De tin marín, de dos pingué,
- cúcara mácara títere fue.
- ¿Cuantas patas tiene el caballo?
- Uno,dos, tres, cuatro.
- Eeny meeny miney mo
- Catch your troubles by the toe
- If it hollers let it go
- Let it fly away
- Eeny meeny miney mo
- It's the saying high and low
- Hear it everywhere you go
- Every time of day
- Big ben rings it
- °Vallee sings it
- °Whitewood swings it
- Even °Mr.Crosby bings it
- In 1993, a high school teacher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, provoked a student walkout when she asked her students about their poor test scores, "What did you do? Just go eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a nigger by the toe?" The school's district superintendent recommended the teacher "lose three days of pay, undergo racial sensitivity training, and have placed in her personnel file" along with a disciplinary pay cut.
- A jocular use of a form of the rhyme by a Southwest Airlines flight attendant, encouraging passengers to sit down so the plane could take off, led to a 2003 lawsuit charging the airline with intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Two versions of the rhyme were attested in court; both "Eeny meeny miny mo, Please sit down it's time to go" and "Pick a seat, it's time to go". The passengers in question were African American and stated that they were humiliated due to what they called the "racist history" of the rhyme. A jury returned a verdict in favor of Southwest and the plaintiffs' appeal was denied.
- In May 2014, an unbroadcast outtake of BBC motoring show Top Gear showed presenter Jeremy Clarkson reciting the rhyme and deliberately mumbling a line which some took to be "catch a nigger by his toe". In response to accusations of racism, Clarkson apologised to viewers that his attempts to obscure the line "weren't quite good enough".
- In 2017, the retailer Primark pulled a T-shirt from its stores that featured the rhyme overlaid with an image of The Walking Dead character Negan's baseball bat, dubbed "Lucille." A customer, minister Ian Lucraft, had complained the T-shirt was "fantastically offensive" and claimed the imagery "relates directly to the practice of assaulting black people in America."
There are many scenes in books, films, plays, cartoons and video games in which a variant of "Eeny meeny ..." is used by a character who is making a choice, either for serious or comic effect. Notably, the rhyme has been used by killers to choose victims in the 1994 films Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers, the 2003 film Elephant, and the sixth-season finale of the AMC television series The Walking Dead. In Let the Tiger Go, a documentary on tiger conservation released on YouTube in 2017, the poem is read by Alan Rabinowitz in advocacy for ending the poaching of tigers for their body parts. The very title of the documentary is implied to be an allusion to the poem.
Other uses of the phrase in popular culture include:
Eenie Meenie Records is a Los Angeles-based music record label.
The names of many songs include some or all of the phrase, including:
- Eeny Meeny Miny Moe by the Dutch group Luv in 1979
- "Eenie Meenie" by Jeffrey Osborne on self-titled 1982 album.
- "Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo" by Danish pop group Toy-Box in 1999 from their first album "Fantastic."
- "Eenie Meenie" by Jamaican-American singer Sean Kingston and Canadian singer Justin Bieber in 2010.
- "Eenie Meenie Minie Moe" by Peach Kelli Pop from album "Peach Kelli Pop I" recorded in 2010.
- "Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe" is a song on A Shared Dream, a 2012 album by South Korea group U-KISS.
- "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe!" by Japanese dance and vocal unit Sandaime J Soul Brothers on 2015 album "Planet Seven".
- "Eeny Meeny Miny Moe" is a song by Arizona hip hop trio Injury Reserve on their 2016 album "Floss"
- "Eeny meeny miney mo" by Billie Holiday in 1935
Film and television
In the 1930s, animation producer Walter Lantz introduced the cartoon characters Meany, Miny, and Moe (later Meeny, Miney and Mo). First appearing in Oswald Rabbit cartoons, then in their own series.
The 1933 Looney Tunes cartoon Bosko's Picture Show parodies MGM as "TNT pictures", whose logo is a roaring and burping lion with the motto "Eenie Meanie Minie Moe" in the place of MGM's "Ars Gratia Artis".
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