phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions at

Eeny meeny miney mo

Posted by ESC on February 04, 2003

In Reply to: Eeny meeny miney mo 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:

: First line
: ----------
: "Eeny meeny miney mo"
: Inimicus animo is Latin for "enemy of the spirit".

: Second line
: -----------
: "Catch the [word removed in order to comply with Google's Publisher Policy] 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.

: Third line
: ----------
: "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).

There's some discussion in the archives under "eeny." Here is all I know:

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).