Old Poem Saturday – Counting-Out Rhyme

CountingOutRhymeChances are that a counting-out rhyme is one of the first poems you ever learned by heart – “eeny, meeny, miny, mo…” is the version most common in American English, but there is one in almost every language. It has been hypothesized that this series of nonsense sounds and syllables are the remains of an ancient traditional counting system, mentioned often in connection with shepherds keeping track of sheep, although the hard evidence for this is a bit thin. One of the properties of counting-out rhymes is that they are constantly changing and evolving as a childhood game of selection and chance, so writing them down and fixing them is almost an exercise in futility. The version above is listed as being of Scottish origin, recorded as early as 1891 – although counting-out rhymes as a category are much older than that, perhaps by hundreds of years. For an interesting article on this in The Paris Review, click here. Photograph and composition by me. Have a great weekend!

 

11 comments

    1. Thank you! I’ll be excited to see how they turn out – I think some of the old/unique/regional counting-out rhymes would make great cross stitches. Reading all the various British/Scottish/Irish versions of the rhyme gave me a case of “counting-out-rhyme-envy,” I like them better than “eeny, meeny, miny, mo”!

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  1. The King of Heazle Peazle makes this my favorite by far! (Try to Google that though; I’m guessing it’s referring to some Biblical king but good luck verifying which one…) Also love the praying mantis; miss seeing them around my neck of the woods…

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    1. Thanks! I agree – this version of the rhyme beats “eeny, meeny, miny, mo” in my book! This one is way better! Googling was surprisingly unhelpful for information on the counting-out rhymes, but luckily there are a few books written specifically about them that have been digitized – and the Paris Review article I linked to. I only see a praying mantis once in awhile, so this little guy, perching on a wall, caught my eye!

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  2. Novel idea in this so-fast-changing world. I’m going to memorize this one. I think it will be a good vocal warm up and concentration practice for my children’s theater cast this fall. Thanks for sharing and sparking me to find more!

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    1. That’s a great idea! I was saying this one out loud to hear the progression of the sounds, which constitutes the core of these rhymes (the words and usage change constantly, but they tend to revolve around the particular order of sounds) and I thought it was indeed a good vocal workout. I’d love to hear how it goes with your theater students!

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  3. Engine, engine number 9
    Rolling down the railroad line
    if the train should jump the track
    how much money would you get back?

    Jump rope and hand slap rhymes like Miss Mary Mack and Down, Down, Baby are also like that learned early and changed often. Also circle games like London Bridge is Falling Down and Ring Around the Rosie. All have interesting words with some mystery and history to them.

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    1. Exactly – those are fantastic! We sang versions of those too! There are so many – there is this core to them (the rhythm and flow) and then after that the variations are not only by language and country, but down to regions and individual communities. It is a truly evolving and everlasting poem.

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