“Eenie meenie miney moe,
Catch a tiger by his toe,
If he hollers let him go,
Eeine meenie miney moe.”
JN is a 50-year-old freelance writer in Minnesota, where she grew up as well. I asked her about any traditions she remembers from when she was a child, such as rhymes or things of that sort. She told me that this rhyme was said by kids, “…And whoever it landed on [when they said the last “moe”] was the person who was ‘it’ and we used it for things like tag or jump rope.”
This rhyme was a way for kids to “fairly” decide who was “it” during gameplay. Kids really emphasize fairness, and no one likes being “it”, so doing a game like “eenie meenie miney moe” is a way to randomize who is “it”. Even though much of this rhyme isn’t real English words and the phrases don’t make sense, it does rhyme, so it sounds good together and flows well. The words themselves aren’t what give it meaning, instead it is the context in which they are used. And there is variation among this rhyme as well, as I have heard the last line said as “and you are ‘it’” or “and you are not ‘it’” in different situations. Games are fun for children when they are perceived as fair, so little rhymes and other things like this have developed as a way to ensure fairness while also allowing the games themselves to continue. Even if you don’t want to be “it” and put up a fuss, you can’t really argue with “eenie meenie miney moe.” And this rhyme is short and easy to remember and learn, which explains its spread and continued use across long periods of time (at least from when my informant was a kid a few decades ago to when I was a kid about a decade ago).