Eena, meena, mina, mo

Posted by ESC on February 23, 2002

In Reply to: One more observation on Racist language posted by Word Camel on February 22, 2002

: : : : : : : hello all~

: : : : : : : i'm not sure if I spelled it correctly but I was wondering if anybody knows the origination of eeney meeney miney moe or knows of a different version than:

: : : : : : : eeney meeney miney moe
: : : : : : : catch a tiger by its toe
: : : : : : : if he hollers let him go
: : : : : : : eeney meeney miney moe

: : : : : : : thanks!
: : : : : : : nici

: : : : : : The version of "eeny, meeny, miny, moe" that was current in playgrounds when I was a child (1960's Britain), replaced the word "tiger" with [word removed in order to comply with Google's Publisher Policy]. This is of course totally unacceptable by today's standards, given the massively pejorative and racist overtones that the word has gained over the ensuing years. At the time, however, it was used in total innocence.

: : : : : The "n____" version was current among U.S. children in the 1950s. As I understand it, the word hasn't gained racist overtones since then: it had them all the time. No, that's not strong enough. Not just overtones. The whole meaning of the word was just plain racist. What has changed is people's sensibilities about racism--including the words that help to perpetuate it. (In the U.S., we had a civil rights movement that got national attention inthe 1960s, followed by other changes in the culture.)
: : : : : There were more lyrics. The next verse started "If he hollers (or another verb here?), make him pay / Fifty dollars every day." I don't remember the rest. It might be in a book I don't have, Iona and Peter Opie, "The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren."

: : : : Try the link below ( That page says the chant, in some form, may go back to Druidic sacrifices of children. Another site I found says the old British version had "catch a tinker" and the "n____" version may date only to the beginning of World War II, when GIs arrived in England.

: : : The Druidic comment above is interesting, because I've also heard that (but had forgotten). The Druids were around in Britain before the advent of written language here as far as I am aware - so approximately up to two thousand years ago, with the advent of the Romans starting the downfall of native British Druidic culture.

: : : Given that there are no writings to study from those times, I wonder if anyone knows the Gaelic for "one, two, three, four" or possibly the modern Irish or Welsh?

: : : As a side note, the "n________" word seems not to have had such hateful racist overtones here in the UK until a little more recently - maybe the mid 70's. I would guess that the term started out by being more patronising than insulting - the UK had a widespread colonial past and as such would have 100 years ago definitely considered itself in some way "superior" to any of the territories it conquered - including the inhabitants. I remember my mother (born in the early 1920's) quite innocently using the term "n_____ brown" to describe a chocolate brown colour of fabric or paint during my childhood. However, I am unsure when, where or how the term picked up its undisputed current overtones of hate and detestation. Surely something must have happened, or did some extremist group hijack the word?

: :
: : It probably aquired the connotation in the UK with the start of large scale immigration of West Indians in the 1950's. Britian never boomed to the same extent as the United States did in the post war period. West Indian labour and immigration seemed threatening to Britains who were struggling for jobs and resources (rationing actually carried on into the 50's in the UK). It also has to be said that trade unions played a dispicable role, by campaigning against the recruitment of black workers. In spite of Britian's colonial past, there is no evidence to suggest that racism (expect perhaps anti-Irish prejudice) was wide spread among ordinary folk before the 1950's. Indeed, the warmth and friendliness of British people for Black American GI's caused the American Military to insist that certain restaurants, hotels in pubs impose a colour bar. In Manchester a number of pubs retaliated by imposing a colour bar of their own, allowing ONLY Black GI's into their establishments.

: When I first moved to Britain in the Mid-eighties, I was shocked to encounter racial slurs that had become socially unexceptable in the US. Britain never had the equivalent of an American civil rights movement and the non-white population in the UK - mainly West Indian and Asian by the 80's was was a much smaller proportion of the total population than was the case in the US, and carried far less social weight. It was only when government began to legislate against the superficial trappings of racism in the 80's and 90's that these terms came to be seen as unacceptable. Unfortunately, because these terms were banned, rather than discredited the language of racism - both in the UK and in the US has become much more coded. 'Ethnic' is a term that springs to mind. I'm sure there are others as well.

From the archives:

EENA, MEENA, MINA, MO or eeny, meeny, miny, mo - ".It is, of course, part of a counting-out expression used in children's games to determine who will be 'it' among a group of players. The full rhyme, probably dating back to the 19th century, was originally the insensitive (at best): 'Eena, meena, mina, mo,/Catch a [word removed in order to comply with Google's Publisher Policy] by the toe,/If he hollers, let him go,/Eena meena, mina, mo.' Sometimes the fourth line is "My mother says I should pick this here one,' and happily, the second line is much more frequently today 'Catch a tiger by the toe.' The rhyme is said, of course, with the counter pointing at each player in rotation with each word, the player who is last pointed at being 'it.' One tradition has it that counting-out rhymes are relics of formulas Druid priests used to choose human sacrifices." From Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).