Eeny Meeny Miny Mo, A Chant That Spans The Globe

Eeny Meeny Miny Mo, A Chant That Spans The Globe

10:47am Apr 26, 2015

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You're playing a game, and it's time to figure out who goes first. You could rock, paper, scissors for it, or you could do the following...

CECILIA CLEMENS: Eeny meeny miny mo...

ANNA KULBASHNY: ...Catch a tiger by the toe...

EMILE BEAUBIEN: ...If it hollers, let him go...

SARAYU MUDIYA: ...Eeny meeny miny mo.

MARTIN: Every kid seems to know this rhyme, or at least a variation of it, including the kids you just heard - 11-year-old Cecilia Clemens and Anna Kulbashny, 10-year-old Emile Beaubien and Sarayu Mudiya, age 6. But where does it come from?

Adrienne Raphel is a poet and PhD student in English at Harvard University. Raphel wrote about eeny meeny miny mo for The Paris Review. And she says you can trace the rhyme's origin way back to when shepherds used it to count hundreds of years ago. And it sounded a little like this.

ADRIENNE RAPHEL: Yan, tan, tehtera, methera, pimp, sethera, lethera, hovera, dovera - so you can kind of hear the eeny meeny miny mo in it, right?

MARTIN: Kind of.

RAPHEL: Kind of. (Laughter).

MARTIN: So how did it morph? I mean, there've been several iterations of this since, over these many, many hundreds of years. I understand that one of the earlier versions of the rhyme included a racial slur. Walk us through the journey of this rhyme.

RAPHEL: An earlier version of the rhyme that children recited on playgrounds did include a racial slur sometimes. And that then caused a lot of entomologists to do kind of back formations, and say, well, because it had this racial slur, we think it may have had all of these other, you know, African American origins and all of this stuff with it. But it's really hard to - and the history of it is much more complicated than that because the sounds in this rhyme are really sticky. You know, they're like these nonsense syllables that then sound like words that you recognize. So then you stick words that you recognize into the nonsense syllables. And then the words that recognized take on a life of their own. And in some cases that becomes extremely problematic.

MARTIN: Is it fair to call it a song? I mean do people kind of sing it?

RAPHEL: I'd say it's somewhere between a poem and a song and a chant because it's hard not to do it. You know? You start saying eeny meeny, and then you go miny mo. Catch a tiger by the - it has rhythm built into it.

MARTIN: Can you find it in other languages or is this exclusively something that lives in English?

RAPHEL: Oh, it's all over the world. So I'm going to completely butcher the pronunciation, but there's versions of it that folklorists heard in Denmark, for example, like, (reciting poem with Danish dialect). And there's versions in France(reciting poem with French dialect). They heard versions in Zimbabwe. Folklorists, too, went on the playgrounds to study what these kids were singing. It's all over.

MARTIN: So what's the take away - that kind of children everywhere - there's some universal quality to the sound of these words and repeating them in a pattern?

RAPHEL: I think the take away is these words sound really good together. (Laughter). You know? And it's really fun to repeat them in a pattern. It's also, you know, it's so much fun because they sound great together. You know them by heart, but you can do these little, like, switches and flips and variations in them. And then maybe your new eeny meeny miny mo variation will be the one that kids on the playgrounds for generations will be reciting.

MARTIN: Poet Adrienne Raphel. She wrote about eeny meeny miny mo for The Paris Review. Thanks so much for talking with us, Adrienne.

RAPHEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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