Eeny Meeny Miny Mo

by | Apr 4, 2019

eenymeeny-1429691

Eeny, meeny, miny, mo
Catch a tiger by the toe
If he hollers, let him go
Eeny meeny miny mo

Eeny meeny miny mo – what does it mean? Where did it come from? Why would you want to catch a tiger by its toe? Is it racist?

Origins

Eeny Meeny is known as a “counting rhyme” or “chanting rhyme” and forms of it have existed for hundreds of years and in many different languages. Exact origins are not known. One theory is that it originated from Saõ Tomenese, a creole language spoken by African slaves. Another theory is that it was coined by shepherds in England in Scotland as they chanted to count their sheep. A third theory is that its orgins can be traced back to ancient Celtic rituals of sorting out who should die as a sacrifice.

Basically, nobody knows where the rhyme originated, but it goes back further than American children on the playground.

Versions in Other Languages

Dr.Adrienne Raphel, writing in the Paris Review provides these following other examples of forms of Eeny Meeny:

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.

Additionally, there are many other counting and sorting rhymes that are similar to eeny meeny. Such rhymes have been quite common throughout the past few hundred years.

Is it Racist?

The second line in the American playground version “catch a tiger by its toe” makes no sense. Why would you want to catch a tiger by its toe? And what are the odds that after doing so the tiger would holler to be let go?

The second line didn’t always refer to a tiger. It used to be sung as “catch a nigger by its toe” and such line made its way into the rhyme shortly after the civil war when racial tensions in the aftermath of slavery were very high. It is thought to be a reference to slave selection or what slave owners would do if they caught a runaway slave. Ugly. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the racist second line morphed into “catch a tiger.” Why a tiger? Who knows.

The racist aspect of the rhyme seems to be largely unknown to the past few generations of chanters/singers. I had no idea that the rhyme had a racist history until I began researching it yesterday.

An example of this ignorance was the use of the rhyme by a 22-year old Southwest Airlines flight attendant in 2001 who said the following over the intercom: “Eenie meenie minie mo, pick a seat, we gotta go.” Two African-American passengers sued the airline for making the racist remark and discriminating against African-Americans. The flight attendant claimed she had no idea that the children’s rhyme might have racist connotations. A jury found in favor of the airline.

As A Choosing Mechanism

Many children sing the rhyme as follows:

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe
Catch a tiger by the toe
If he hollers let him go,
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe
My mother told me
To pick the very best one
And you are [not] it.

The last three lines are often added to the rhyme as a way of choosing or not choosing other children to play (or whatever). There are many versions of how the sorting chant goes and it is often manipulated by children by inserting “Not” or leaving “Not” out of the chant.

1 Comment

  1. We added a line at the end of it, when we were kids. “My mother told me to pick the very best one, and you are not it, you dirty dirty dish rag YOU!”

    Reply

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