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Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe
Children's counting rhyme
"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, or for selecting various other things. 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 know its exact origin.
The scholars Iona and Peter Opie noted that many variants have been recorded, some with additional words such as "... O. U. T. spells out, And out goes she, In the middle of the deep blue sea" or "My mother told me/says to pick the very best one, and that is Y-O-U/you are [not] it"; while another source cites "Out goes Y-O-U."
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:
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:
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":
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 (1951) that the word "nigger" was common in American folklore, 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 14th century, whereas according to the Oxford English Dictionary the words "Niger" or "'nigger" were first recorded in England in the 16th century with their current disparaging meaning. The 'olla' and 'toe' are found as nonsense words in some 19th century versions of the rhyme.
There are considerable variations in the lyrics of the rhyme, including from early twentieth century in the United States of America:
In 1993, a high school teacher in Mequon, Wisconsin, provoked a student walkout when she said, in reference to poor test performance, "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 a memorandum detailing the incident placed in her personnel file".
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 first line of the rhyme as spoken by The Walking Dead character Negan, overlaid with an image of his baseball bat. A customer, minister Ian Lucraft, complained the T-shirt was "fantastically offensive" and claimed the imagery "relates directly to the practice of assaulting black people in America."
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.
The vinyl release of Radiohead's album OK Computer (1997) uses the words "eeny meeny miny moe" (rather than letter or numbers) on the labels of Sides A, B, C and D respectively.
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".
The counting-out rhymes of children: their antiquity, origin, and wide distribution; a study in folk-lore, Henry Carrington Bolton, 1888 (online version at archive.org)
More Counting-out Rhymes, H. Carrington Bolton in The Journal of American Folklore Vol. 10, No. 39 (Oct. - Dec., 1897), pp. 313-321. Published by: American Folklore Society DOI: 10.2307/533282 Stable URL: (online version at JStor)