eeny meeny miney mo - how acceptable?

Discussion in 'English Only' started by alisonp, Nov 7, 2006.

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  1. alisonp Senior Member

    English - UK
    Following a discussion on another list, I'd like to hear, from Americans in particular, an answer to the following:

    How acceptable, or not, do you find the phrase 'eeny meeny miney mo' on its own, with no reference to the following line as a method of random selection? Is it so culturally tainted by the N word that used, at least, to appear in the second line that you now find it totally unacceptable in any context, or would you still use it? Or is it going out of use anyway? I don't think that Brits by and large would have a problem with it, but I can imagine that US history over the last century could mean it would have different implications to Americans.

    (An indication of your approximate age and location would be helpful - if it doesn't already appear in your profile - in case it's either an age-related or geographical issue)

    Apologies if the subject has been brought up before, but the search function isn't working for me today.
  2. se16teddy

    se16teddy Senior Member

    London but from Yorkshire
    English - England
  3. Porteño Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    British English
    That's very interesting se16teddy. I'm curious to know when the original version was changed in the UK because I taught my children that one. I also do not consider the n-word particularly offensive in this case, although I'm fully aware of the 'political correctness' problem, which is also often a load of bunk in my opinion.
  4. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod (English Only)

    Growing up in California forty years ago, we said, "Catch a monkey by his toe." I don't think political correctness had been invented yet. :)
  5. loladamore

    loladamore Senior Member

    Zacatecas, México
    English UK
    There seem to be various theories regarding the origins of 'eeny meeny miney mo', not all of which are racist, even if they appear to use the N word. Here's an interesting one.

    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 3, 2012
  6. MissFit

    MissFit Senior Member

    I learned "catch a tiger" as a child, and we used the rhyme frequently. I never knew there was an another offensive version until I was 39 years old (last year.) I'm certain that my parents (who born in the early 1940's) never knew the offensive version either, or they would never have allowed us to use it.

    I wouldn't use the rhyme now...not because it's politically incorrect, but because I wouldn't want to be unkind. Erroneously or not, many black people have learned that it first contained the word nigger. On the other hand, if I were black, I would like to think that I would be mature enough to "let it go" if I heard somebody use it--at least if they used it without nigger.
  7. Defy_Convention Member

    English - United States
    I was completely unaware of any racist undertones until I read this thread. Here's how I learned it:

    Eeny meeny miney mo
    Catch a tiger by the toe
    If he hollers make him pay
    Fifty dollars every day
    My mother told me to pick the very best one and you-are-not-it!

    Speaking as a teen in the Rocky Mountain region of the U.S., this expression is totally acceptable (if a bit childish :D )
  8. elroy

    elroy Motley mod

    Chicago, IL
    US English/Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    Wow, up until now I had no idea that the song had any racist connotations whatsoever! :eek:

    Maybe it's because I didn't actually grow up in America. The song was "exported" to me via my American teachers and classmates, and I just thought it was an innocent way to determine who would go first. The version I've always been familiar with contains the word "tiger."
  9. lsp

    lsp Senior Member

    US, English
    I'm in shock, I never knew until this moment that there were any other versions than the one I learned (below), much less a racist version.

    Eeny meeny miney mo
    Catch a tiger by the toe
    If he hollers let him go
    My mother said that you are O - U - T!
  10. Shoes4me Banned

    In a house
    English, USA
    Until I had viewed this post, I also had no idea that there were other versions than the one that I had learned. Especially not any racial ones. However, I don't see why that line wouldn't be acceptable on its own. I mean it would have no racist ties, or anything else to it, so therefore it should be fine.

    The version I learned is not very different than most peoples.

    Eeny meeny miney mo
    Catch a tiger by his toe
    If he hollars let him go,
    My mother said to pick
    the very best one and you are not it!

    Depending on how fast you wanted to pick, and what the strategy was, the person you pointed at on the word IT! was it or out, or they were not IT and won the game.Whatever you wanted. :)
  11. MissFit

    MissFit Senior Member

    Apparently not all black people find the rhyme offensive. Last night I saw an episode of My Wife and Kids in which Damon Wayans recited it when trying to choose a seat on an airplane. His version was "catch a piggie."
  12. alicorn2 New Member

    Canada / English
    I just came across this thread as I was trying to remember what came before "my mother said to pick..." -- I didn't remember it as being part of eenie meenie at all.

    We never used the n word -- but we didn't quite say tiger either... we said Tigger, as in the tiger from Winney The Pooh. This was in British Columbia, around 20 years ago.
  13. GEmatt

    GEmatt Senior Member

    La Côte, Switzerland
    English/BE, Français/CH, Deutsch/CH (rustier & rustier)
    Same here, "...catch a tigger...", England, early 80s. I always thought it referred to the A. A. Milne character, as well. In light of this thread, though, it reads more like a linear departure from the offensive, nigger -> tigger -> tiger.
  14. Brioche

    Brioche Senior Member

    Australia English
    When I was in primary school, we said "catch a nigger by the toe", and thought nothing of it.

    That was back in the days when African-Americans like Martin Luther King called themselves Negros.

    I also remember buying squares of liquorice called "Nigger Blocks".

    I still say Een, meeny, miney, mo, but that's as far as I go.
  15. pob14 Senior Member

    Central Illinois
    American English
    Many of us said "piggy," although I was aware of the racist version also. (Chicago/1960s). Members of my family would often use a version of the racist word that was modified to rhyme with "piggy," and so I always assumed that that's where the "piggy" version came from.

    I wouldn't use "eenie meenie" at all, unless I was lampshading its racist original for some reason. As I'm guessing Damon Wayans was doing in the sketch MissFit saw; it's a big part of his humor.
  16. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod (English Only)

    "Lampshading"? I've never heard that term before. Is it similar to lampooning? What does it mean?
  17. OMT Senior Member

    English - United States
    Using the phrase to highlight its racism (or any other quality), rather than for its intended meaning.
  18. Egmont Senior Member

    Massachusetts, U.S.
    English - U.S.
    Growing up in the northeast U.S. in the late 1940s and early 1950s, I heard, learned, and used it with "tiger" and "monkey." Didn't know it had a racist version until a decade or two later. (That is still well before I came upon this thread, of course)

    To me, using "piggy" makes little sense. In my childhood, as well as those of my children and grandchildren, a "piggy" was a toe - as in "This little piggy went to market, this little piggy ..." How can you catch a toe by the toe? Do toes have their own toes? If they do, do those toes have toes too? It boggles the mind ...
  19. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    Another Country
    English English
    Sometimes a piggy is just a piggy, Egmont, presumably:)
  20. chibikitty9000 New Member

    We always just used "Catch a tiger by it's toe", growing up in Wisconsin. "Eeny meeny miny moe, catch a tiger by the toe, if he hollers let him go, eeny meeny miny moe".
  21. The Prof

    The Prof Senior Member

    I'm only a year older than you, but the nigger version was the only one I ever heard - and with typical childish innocence, we saw it simply as a rhyme. :eek:

    Given how few people are aware that that version ever existed, I think it would be safe to assume that the words "eeny meeny miney mo" on their own or with one of the more recent follow-on versions should be safe to use.

    Alisonp, you are right to be interested in people's age in relation to this question. In fact, I think it is a great pity that more of us don't include our age in our profile, because it is a very important factor where our language/vocabulary is concerned. :)
  22. As the many comments from AE speakers indicate, the "tiger" and "piggy" versions are common in the US even today. Even if some people might be offended by the entire rhyme because of the former use of "nigger," I can't imagine that anyone would find "eeny meeny miney mo" by itself offensive. People say it all the time.
  23. pwmeek

    pwmeek Senior Member

    SE Michigan, USA
    English - American
    There is a long discussion, with many variants, in this Wikipedia article. It is just one of the general class of "counting-out rhymes".

    I was certainly aware of the offensive (nigger) version, as many of my playmates (1948-1958 Mid-West US) used it when out of earshot of adults. I never heard it at home, and only rarely heard the tiger/monkey/etc. versions. I seem to recall chastisement and a long discussion when I tried it (once) at home.
  24. Keith Bradford

    Keith Bradford Senior Member

    Brittany, NW France
    English (Midlands UK)
    In the English Midlands in the 1950s, "catch a nigger" was the standard version. But there again, at St Michael's primary school our alphabet books (published pre-war?) had A is for apple, B is for bat and ball... N is for nigger. Only much later did I discover why the teacher hurried over that page.
  25. The Prof

    The Prof Senior Member

    Another version has just come back to me, and despite what I said earlier (my memory isn't what it used to be :rolleyes:), this is the one that was in widespread use in my junior school: Eeny, meeny, miney, mo, put the baby on the po, when it's done, wipe its bum, with a piece of chewing gum! :D
    Last edited: Apr 2, 2012
  26. rusita preciosa

    rusita preciosa Modus forendi

    USA (Φιλαδέλφεια)
    Russian (Moscow)
    In the US on prime time TV you can see a commercial for a chewing gum that features this rhyme. That to me means that it is definitely acceptable. There the "catchee" is a tiger.:)
    I don’t remember the WR policy on YouTube links, but if you go there and enter “Mentos UP2U commercial“ you can watch it.
  27. LilianaB Banned

    US New York
    I only heard the version with the tiger. It is kind of cute.
  28. Porteño Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    British English
    In my early childhood (pre-WWII) we certainly used the 'nigger' version, although I doubt that we understood the significance. After all, in those days we also had 'golliwogs'! Since almost nobody in the UK in those days had ever seen a black person other than in picture books, there was really no relationship between the expression and real people.
  29. mr cat Senior Member

    English - England
    When I was young in N. England (70's) we used the 'nigger' word, (hate even writing it, horrible), but had absolutely no idea of it's significance, it was just part of a nonsense rhyme. Years later (90's) my daughter came home from school and said the rhyme but used the word 'nicker' which has no meaning but just fits the rhyme.
  30. Sparky Malarky

    Sparky Malarky Moderator

    English - US
    This discussion is fascinating.

    Growing up in the 1950s, we said "Crack a nigger on his toe," and even though we knew better than to use that word in other circumstances, we thought nothing of it. In the 1970's my son came home with "Touch a tiger on his toe."

    The line also appears in a song 'I woke up in the morning':

    There's a second verse, but I don't know it. Silly song, but my point is that the phrase seems to appear in other places as well as the rhyme.
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 3, 2012
  31. Porteño Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    British English
    That's fun! I've never heard it before, but I like it.:)
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 3, 2012
  32. Einstein

    Einstein Senior Member

    Milano, Italia
    UK, English
    Just to say that at school for us it was "nigger", but as others have said it was just a nonsense word and we didn't really consider the meaning. However, it needs to be said that the presence of more immigrants (there were next to none in my town when I was a child) will necessarily change how the word is seen. And after all, what counts is how a word is generally seen. But the link given in post #5 is interesting.

    In the third line, though, we said "If he wriggles, let him go".
  33. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    I grew up in Southern California saying the "tiger" version. I think my mother, who was born in the South, was the one who told me about the n-word version after I got a little older, NOT because she approved of it, because she most definitely did not - I'm not sure what she would have done had she ever heard me use that word, but I would not have enjoyed it - but because she thought it was important for me to know about the rampant racism she grew up around. (They had separate water fountains and everything when she was a kid.) "Nigger" was never an innocent word in the South, or if it ever was, it had been several generations since this was so even when my mother was growing up. I'm quite sure that people in other parts of the country and the world could have used it quite innocently, though.

    And anyway, I don't think anybody could possibly object to "eeny meeny miny mo." You hear it alllllll the time.
  34. mflcs Member

    American English
    I learned the N-version in 1950, during the first days of the first grade in a small town near Indianapolis. When I recited it outdoors with playmates at home, my mother and my father suddenly both appeared at my right and left elbows and ordered me to STOP! and to NEVER! use that word again. My mother suggested, incomprehensibly, that I say "monkey" instead. "But Mother," I insisted, "that's not the way the poem goes." I don't remember when I eventually learned what the N-word signified, but I do know that every part of that rhyme now, for me, is anathema.
  35. mflcs Member

    American English
    Thank you Loladamore for posting. Very interesting.
  36. Porteño Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    British English
    Although I realise how the n-word roils feelings in the US, it hardly has the same significance in the UK. Having said that, I must admit to being very surprised to find the word used in alphabet learning in a school textbook. I'm afraid my memory doesn't recall what we were taught in kindergarten at the beginning of WWII in Surrey, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't that word, it was probably something like nannygoat.:)
  37. mplsray Senior Member

    I am 58 and grew up in a rural area of Central Illinois. I know that both the "nigger" and "tiger" versions of "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe" were available when I was a boy because I insisted on using the "tiger" version while my peers used the "nigger" version."
  38. Rch Member

    English USA
    Grew up in US-Pennsylvania in the 1940s-50s. I heard the n version from classmates, but was not allowed to use it. We said tiger. But my grandmother, born in 1884, daughter of missionaries and grown up on a Blackfeet reservation in Fort Hall, Idaho and later in California, taught me two other versions, completely different, which I liked simply because they were different and fun to say:

    Eeny, meeny, miney, mo,
    Crack a feeny finey foe.
    Ippa nuja poppa tuja,
    ick, bick, ban, dao.


    One-ree, orey, ickery ann,
    Philisy, pholisy, Nicholas John.
    Queevy, quavy, English Navy,
    Stickolum, stackolum, John Buck.

    The spelling in both is pure guesswork, of course.

    Her father claimed English ancestry. Could he have taught her the second one, perhaps? Could the first one include some counting in the Blackfeet language, or are those nonsense syllables? I suppose I'll never know.
  39. RM1(SS)

    RM1(SS) Senior Member

    English - US (Midwest)
    When I was a kid we used the "nigger" version - this was small-town southern Michigan in the early '60s, and at that point I don't believe I'd ever actually seen a black person except on telly. It's been years since I last used it, but I see no reason not to do so when the situation calls for it, though I would say "tiger" or "penguin" now. (As in the song Sparky quoted, we said "Eeny meeny miney mo" again after "let him go.")

    As for Rch's alternates, ZUI The Outdoor Handy Book, by Daniel Carter Beard (1896):

    He then goes on to list a few more variants. The whole section on "How to Count Out" can be read on Google Books; I found it by doing a Google search for fillison follison.
  40. bennymix

    bennymix Senior Member

    Ontario, Canada. I grew up in US.
    English (American).
    It's quite amazing that a whole generation or two, above seem unaware of the racist version, which I certainly heard in So Cal in the 1950s. The word 'tiger' [or the more transparent 'tigger'] is the attempt to clean up the rhyme, and, I thought, came in about that time. I sure a number of transitional folks knew that 'tiger' etc. were stand-ins.

    As to whether the opening lines are acceptable before the racist lines (or with substitutions), I think marginally so.

    Regarding Porteno's assertion,
    I'm rather skeptical. Racist terms continue to be used in taunts and do indeed 'roil' the objects, if not the taunters.
  41. PaulQ

    PaulQ Senior Member

    English - England
    I learned the "picking-rhyme" including nigger as a child of about four or five in the English East Midlands (c. 1954.) It was used in my infant's school by the children, having been handed down from older children.

    Obviously you grow out of such picking-rhymes and the next I heard of it (early 1960's?), nigger had been changed to "tiger".

    << Please do not introduce additional topics >>
  42. Andygc

    Andygc Senior Member

    British English
    This thread has clearly run its course. It is not a place to start a wide-ranging discussion on various uses of the word "nigger" beyond the nursery rhyme referred to in the OP. The thread is closed.
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