CATCH A TIGER BY THE TOE
Half- Remembered by Norman Warwick
Angela Carter took us to a quiet room and made us sit and listen to what we had previously taken as simple little nursery rhymes, until she pushed open the door of The Bloody Chamber and showed us what these inoffensive little ditties might really mean.
Angela Carter (1940–1992) – novelist, short story writer, poet and journalist – is one of the boldest and most original writers of the 20th century. Carter’s work breaks many long-established taboos and mores, not least in her forthright realigning of women as central to, and in control of, their own narratives. Her perfectly crafted stories are often provocative and subversive and many contain graphic and violent content. Her work draws on an eclectic range of themes and influences, from gothic fantasy, traditional fairy tales, Shakespeare and music hall, through Surrealism and the cinema of Godard and Fellini.
Published the same year as The Sadeian Woman, Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1979) was one of her most successful books. Carter finely draws out the latent sexual and violent content of the traditional tales of Bluebeard’s castle and Red Riding Hood, creating a collection of new fiercely subversive tales. In 1984 she worked with Neil Jordan to develop some of these stories into a horror film, The Company of Wolves.
Revisionism is an interesting part of the history of story, of course, and Jacob Uitti recently examined a chequered history of the much loved children´s rhyme Eeny Meeny.
Eeny Meeny was, remembers Mr Uitti,, ´´a rhyme my mum or dad used to chuckle at meas a very young child whenever they were playing at tickling my feet, as if doing so was going to help me learn to count. I had no idea then, and surely nor did my folks, of just how heinous the rhyme could be in some ofts formations. So, come follow your art down sidetracks and detorus to see where counting to five can really lead us.
It’s the only nursery rhyme that can be used to settle an argument or problems of choice.
That’s right, we’ve all taken advantage of the catchy, quirky nursery rhyme, “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe.” But what does the ditty mean? What is the history behind it—both good and bad—and what does it all mean?
Come on, we have surely worked on more meaningful, and certainly more difficult songs in search of their history and of their true meaning, if such a thing can be allowed to exist.
Eeny Meeny is the catchy tune known as a “counting-out rhyme” and it’s often used to select a person for a game or for a prize. It’s also commonly used (as by Homer Simpson in one notable episode) when choosing what button to push, what car to select, or any other number of options.
Scholars say that the rhyme existed well before 1820 and is common in many languages, not just in English. The most common English version goes like this:
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe
Catch a tiger by the toe
If he hollers, let him go
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.
Throughout history, many variations have been recorded, which include additional words, phrases, concepts, and even characters.
My mother said
to pick the
very best one
and you are it.
…and you are
The first record of a similar rhyme, known as the “Hana, man,” originates in 1815. That’s when children in New York City are said to have often said the rhyme:
Hana, man, mona, mike
Barcelona, bona, strike
Hare, ware, frown, vanac
Harrico, warico, we wo, wac.
photo 1 The scholar Henry Carrington Bolton graduated from Columbia in 1862, and then studied chemistry with Jean Baptiste André Dumas and Charles Adolphe Wurtz in Paris; with Robert Bunsen, Hermann Kopp, and Gustav Kirchhoff at Heidelberg; with Friedrich Wöhler at Göttingen; and with August Wilhelm von Hofmann in Berlin, and received a D. Phil. at Göttingen in 1866, for his work called “On the Fluorine Compounds of Uranium”.
After his graduation, he spent some years in travel. From 1872 until 1877, he was assistant in quantitative analysis in the Columbia School of Mines. In 1874 he was appointed professor of chemistry in the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary. He resigned in 1877, when he became professor of chemistry and natural science in Trinity College. The celebration of the centennial of chemistry at Northumberland, Pennsylvania, the home of Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen in 1774, was suggested and brought about by Bolton.
Among his investigations, that of the action of organic acids on minerals is perhaps the most important, but most of his work was literary, and his private collection of early chemical books was unsurpassed in the United States. Bolton published large bibliographies of chemistry and later of all scientific periodicals which are still used. He included alchemy in the chemistry listings and emphasized the continuity of the transition. He was a member of many scientific societies, perhaps more than any contemporary.
The Science History Institute hosts the Bolton Society, which is named for H.C. Bolton, to support “printed materials devoted to chemistry and related sciences” and to support its Othmer Library of Chemical History.
Carrington also discovered this rhyme in German:
Ene, tene, mone, mei
Pastor, lone, bone, strel,
Ene, fune, herke, berke,
Wer? Wie? Wo? Was?
And author Rudyard Kipling (left) has used this nonsense verse in his writing:
Eenie, Meenie, Tipsy, toe;
Olla bolla Domino,
Okka, Pokka dominocha,
Hy! Pon! Tush!
(Bombay, 1865 – London, 1936) English storyteller and poet, controversial for his imperialist ideas and considered one of the greatest storytellers in the English language. He belonged to a family of English origin (his father, John Lockwood Kipling, was a painter and superintendent of the Lahore Museum), and spent his early childhood in India. At the age of six he was sent to England, where he studied at the United Services College, Westward Ho, in Devonshire, an environment he later described in the novel Stalky C.
Returning to India in 1882, he devoted himself to journalism as deputy editor of The Lahore Civil and Military Gazette and then, between 1887 and 1889, of The Pioneer . At the age of twenty-one he published his first book, Departmental Ditties (1866), a collection of verses of circumstances, and at twenty-two the first volume of stories, Simple Tales from the Hills (1887), which was followed, in 1888-89, by six more. : Three Soldiers , Under the Deodaras Cedars , The Ghost Rickshaw , The Gadsby Story , In Black and White and Little William Winkie .
In such accounts, set in the setting of Indian life as an Englishman could understand it and written in a direct and forceful language reminiscent of military jargon, Kipling revealed a keen observational spirit, inventiveness, and a knack for describing types. characteristic of officers and boys inspired by immediate reality. The snappy, crisp style, gruff and often cynical tone, and gritty realism that heralds those of Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway offer a taste of lived experience, with nuances of anecdote told under the tents of a soldiers’ camp in the course of the prolonged night vigils.
After a long journey through Japan and the United States, which he recounted in a series of letters ( Letters of marque ) published in The Pioneer and later in the two volumes of From Sea to Sea (1889), he wrote another series of narratives. Indians for The Macmillan’s Magazine , later collected in Peripecias de la vida (1891). In England he also published a collection of ballads, Barracks Songs (1892), which, together with the following verses from Seven Seas (1896) and The Five Nations(1903), inspired by the epic enterprises of the Anglo-Saxon lineage and its faithful sentinels scattered all over the Earth, its industrial and colonial power and its seafaring glories, made Kipling the poet of the triumphant British imperialism of the Victorian age.
After having attempted the novel in The Light That Goes Out (1891) without much success, he made other long trips to the United States, Australia and South Africa. In 1892 he married Caroline Starr Balestier, from New York, and settled with her in Battleboro, Vermont, where he lived for four years and composed several works that reveal the American influence, particularly that of Jack London, in the exaltation of life . Primitive and Return to Nature: Miscellaneous Inventions (1893), The Jungle Book (1894), The Second Jungle Book (1895) and Intrepid Captains (1897).
There is, too, a Cornish version the verse from 1882 goes:
Ena, mena, mona, mite,
Bascalora, bora, bite,
Hugga, bucca, bau,
Eggs, butter, cheese, bread.
Stick, stock, stone dead – OUT.
Likely, the rhyme that we know today comes to us from Old English or Welsh counting, likely from farm jobs, such as counting sheep or crops. An old shepherd’s count is known as the “Yan Tan Tehera” and the Cornish “End, mena, mona, mite” above.existed earlier, it is difficult to know the ditty’s exact origin.
Another explanation comes from British colonists who returned from India after learning the rhyme used in carom billiards:
baji, neki, baji thou, elim, tilim, latim, gou.
There is a Swahili poem brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans that goes: Iino ya mmiini maiini mo.
Of course, throughout history, there are even more of these rhythmic, nonsense-sounding rhymes. And there will be more into the centuries, most likely.
Of course, the rhyme has been made ugly and abused. During times of slavery, the word “tiger” was replaced by the N-word. Bolton even reports that this was the most common version among American school children as of 1888, showing how ugly our history has been at times. Versions like the below also appeared in Australia, unfortunately.
Bert Fitzgibbon’s 1906 song offers a window into this ugliness:
Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo,
Catch a n—-r by the toe,
If he won’t work then let him go;
Skidum, skidee, skidoo.
But when you get money, your little bride
Will surely find out where you hide,
So there’s the door and when I count four,
Then out goes you.
Adding to the problem, reportedly in 1993, a school teacher in Mequon, Wisconsin, provoked a student walkout when she said in reference to poor test scores, “What did you do? Just go eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a n—-r by the toe?” This caused the school’s district superintendent to recommend the teacher “lose three days of pay, undergo racial sensitivity training, and have a memorandum detailing the incident placed in her personnel file.”
On other occasions, black airplane passengers said they were humiliated because of the rhyme’s “racist history” after a Southwest Airlines flight attendant, encouraging them to sit down on the plane so it could take off, said, “Eeny meeny miny mo, Please sit down it’s time to go.”
Similar moments like this have persisted, including an unbroadcast outtake from a BBC show during which presenter Jeremy Clarkson recited the rhyme and mumbled the racist part. Clarkson later apologized to viewers.
In 2017, a t-shirt retailer had the first line printed on a shirt with a baseball bat, harking to The Walking Dead character Negan, which caused some to say the shirt was offensive and “relates directly to the practice of assaulting black people in America.”
There is also a moment in the film, Pulp Fiction, in which a heinous character says the rhyme and uses the N-word before engaging in sexual abuse.
During the Second World War, a reporter for the Associated Press in Atlanta, Georgia, reported that local school children were heard reciting a wartime variation that went:
Eenie, meenie, minie, moe,
Catch the emperor by his toe.
If he hollers make him say:
‘I surrender to the USA.’
Another one from the 1950s U.K. went:
Eeeny, meeny, miney, mo.
Put the baby on the po.
When he’s done,
Wipe his bum.
And tell his mother what he’s done.
Today, while the rhyme has been used to cause severe racist harm, it is not thought of in these terms by most. It’s often considered a cute, quirky rhyme. But, of course, not everything we enjoy today can be taken for granted.
It’s important to know the history of even the things that today seem innocuous. If we don’t know our history, we are doomed to repeat it.
As in the clip of Homer on The Simpsons, the rhyme is often used in ways that have nothing to do with racism. And the origins of the rhyme likely (hopefully?) don’t stem from those grotesque years when humans owned other humans. But, the more you know…
please note logo The primary source for this piece was written for the print and on line media by Jacob Uitti in American Songwriter. Authors and Titles have been attributed in our text wherever possible
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For a more comprehensive detail of our attribution policy see our for reference only post on 7th April 2023 entitled Aspirations And Attributions.