Counting-Out Rhyme – United States of America

Eenie Meenie Miney Moe

Catch a tiger by the toe

If he hollers make him pay

Fifty dollars every day

My mother told me

To choose the very best one

And you are not it!

*underlined syllables/words indicate when to point at a different person

My father thinks he first heard this sometime during elementary school, most likely during third grade. For children, this rhyme is a popular method for choosing who is It in a game of tag, whose turn it will be first, whether to have candy or cookies, or any number of simple decisions.. My mother was present as he recited this rhyme to me, and one variation was immediately present: according to her, you “catch a rabbit by the toe.” My father also mentioned once hearing a variation where the “n-word” (nigger) was substituted for “tiger.” Another variation arises in word choice: “to choose the very best one” versus “to pick the very best one.” However, these variations are not as contrasting as tiger, rabbit, and nigger. Another variation is the last line—sometimes, the word “not” is omitted, depending on how the child was taught, or if the child wants to fix the rhyme so that a particular person will be selected. My brother, age 6, will sometimes repeat the word “not” or move around his pointing finger during an extended “nooooooot” so that he is in charge of selection, rather than the cadence of the rhyme.

The first phrase consists of nonsense words, setting a tone for the following lines both in terms of rhythm and content. You would be hard-pressed to catch a tiger by the toe; I have also never heard of a tiger that could holler. Also, where would a tiger get fifty dollars? “My” mother told me to choose the very best one—but the best one of what? The best tiger? The best counting-out rhyme participant? The nonsensical nature of this counting-out rhyme makes it an apt choice for children to use when making a simple decision. Additionally, the initial phrase, “Eenie Meenie Miney Moe,” is catchy and short enough to make it easily remembered among children.

The fact that the emotionally charged word “nigger” is included in a children’s rhyme may be somewhat startling to some. The idea of “catching a nigger by the toe” brings to mind thoughts of slavery in America, when it was crucial to capture the slaves who tried to flee their masters in the South. However, if we take into account that my father initially learned this rhyme when he was in elementary school, it is interesting to note that this would have been during the 1960s, as the Civil Rights Movement was taking place in the United States. This means that ideas about race would have been fairly prominent, and including a word like “nigger” might have been a response to the social climate in the U.S. at that time.

Myrdal, Gunnar and Sissela, Bok. American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, Vol. 1. Transaction Publishers, 1996.

Page 1438 offers alternate versions of the rhyme documented above. One version discusses catching an “emperor” by the toe, while a couple other versions bring forth the “nigger” term again. The “fifty dollars every day” line reappears as well, but there is no mention of the “my mother told me…” lines from above.