counting-out rhymes

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Used by children (and sometimes adults sotto voce) to make a random choice between options but particularly to choose who will be ‘it’ in a game. The children stand in a circle or line, and one child points to each in turn in the rhythm of the chanted rhyme and either the one pointed to the last word is ‘it’ or, more usually, is eliminated from the count and the process is repeated until there is only one left. As such it is normally accepted as a fair method of choosing, but in the hands of a skilful practitioner the outcome can be manipulated to a certain degree. There can be few people in Britain who do not know a variant of:Eenie meenie minie moCatch a nigger by his toeIf he hollers let him goEenie meenie minie mo.[SR]


The offensive word in the second line, under pressure from parents and teachers, is usually rendered now as ‘beggar’ or other two-syllable word, much to the annoyance of those who believe that our traditional lore should not be changed for mere ‘political correctness’. There is evidence, however, that the ‘nigger’ word was imported relatively late from the USA, with ‘chicken’ or ‘tinker’ being the older British form (Opie and Opie, 1997: 184–6). The first line turns up in dozens of other counting out rhymes, and is also found in German, Austrian, and a French-Canadian version, but the middle two lines are first reported in 1888 (from Scotland). English children have a wide range of rhymes from which to choose:One potato, two potato, three potato, fourFive potato, six potato, seven potato, moreOne bad spud![SR]


is common all over Britain, USA, Canada, and Australia, but does not seem to have been reported before 1885 (in Canada). A number of rhymes start with the words ‘Ip dip’, and indeed many children refer to the process as ‘dipping’:Ip dip sky blueWho's it not you

is a simple version, but more common nowadays (but rarely published) is:Ip dip dog shitFucking bastard silly git(Norbury, Croydon, 12-year-old girls, 1986)

(Norbury, Croydon, 12-year-old girls, 1986)


Bolton, 1888;Abrahams and Rankin, 1980;Opie and Opie, 1969: 17–61.

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