Posted by Kai Lung on February 04, 2003
My father, who is something of a
classical scholar, taught me that the verse was originally medieval and Scottish.
The verse is supposedly a kind of exorcism that has been garbled in translation,
like "Hoc est corpus meum" became "hocus pocus".
His explanation seems much more rational than any that I have seen on this forum or elsewhere, but I am having trouble finding etymological references for it and would be grateful for any assistance.
The racial term that seems to be present predated slavery and originally meant the "black one" or the Devil.
Here's the explanation he gave me:
"Eeny meeny miney mo"
Inimicus animo is Latin for "enemy of the spirit".
"Catch the nigger by the toe"
Use of "the" this reinforces the concept that this refers to the Devil. It is further reinforced in that many variants use the term devil.
"If he hollers let him go"
This is the key line. If you catch or pinch a human toe, they will feel it and protest, but the Devil has a cloven hoof and therefore has no sensation in the toe. If the person tested cries out in pain it suggests that they are not the Devil and you should release them.
As a racial slur the line is meaningless which helps to make the case that the origin is earlier and was not pejorative (except to the Devil, perhaps).