From time to time I receive questions too long for my monthly gleanings. The same happened last week. A reader wanted to know the origin of the eena, meena (or eenie, meenie) rhyme. Although not much can be said with certainty about this matter, a few facts have been established. The Internet devotes a lot of space to this “jingle.” However, it mainly discusses who was caught by the toe: a tiger, a piggy, a baby, a chicken, a tinker, or even the racial slur nigger. In my 2008 book An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction, a special entry is devoted to eena (spelled so; no established spelling of this word exists). Of course, nigger, whether spelled with n or N, is in poor taste. Yet the variant with this word was at one time widespread, especially overseas.
The eena, meena rhyme has been known from printed sources only since the middle of the nineteenth century, which means that it existed earlier (unfortunately, we will never find out how much earlier). One needs a special context for phrases of this type to turn up, and in printed books, unless they are devoted to children’s games or at least describe them in some episodes, such contexts are rare. Only the origin of eena, the first word in this counting-out rhyme, has been establish with some confidence. It resembles the numeral used (or once used) in scoring sheep in the northwestern corner of Yorkshire, and is, according to the opinion that does not seem to have been refuted, of “British,” which means Celtic, rather than Anglo-Saxon, origin.
A local tradition has it that the numerals were brought to Craven, a town in northern Yorkshire, by drovers from Scotland. Those who will decide to follow the bibliography in my dictionary will find multiple references to the discussion in the once widely read periodical Athenæum for 1877. The phrase Cymric dialect often occurs there; it means “Welsh.” Two hypotheses compete with regard to the rhyme’s origin: some researchers believe that the numerals were imported to Yorkshire from Welsh, while others suggest the survival of ancient northern forms in that county. The great English philologist Alexander Ellis believed in importation, while Henry Bradley, James Murray’s colleague, the second editor of the OED, supported the idea of survival. As the entry in the OED shows, not only sheep were scored with the help of the numerals described here, and not only in Yorkshire.
The rhyme has close or distant variants all over the world, and people have traveled to many lands and looked at all kinds of exotic rituals in brave attempts to explain it. Unfortunately, most hypotheses on the rhyme’s origin are fanciful. Eena, meena has been traced to a phrase in French Canadian, to an “ancient magic rime-charm allegedly used in Druid times to choose the human victims to be ferried across the Manai strait to the Mona to meet a horrible fate under the Golden Bough of the sacred mistletoe amid the holy oaks,” and to “a creole language with a largely Portuguese vocabulary spoken… off the West Coast of Africa, since the sixteenth century.” Such bold hypotheses tend to entrance non-specialists, but they seldom outlive their creators. The sad law of etymology is that most words have a rather simple origin; only discovering it sometimes poses insurmountable difficulties. The most useful survey of the literature on eena, meena known to me appeared in the periodical Jewish Language Studies 2, by David L. Gold.
The rhyme has countless variants. Even its first word appears in several forms. Alexander Ellis cited the string of words that can be spelled approximately y-ian, t-ian, tethuru ~ methuru, pi(m)p. The numerals that his contemporaries recorded are sometimes mere gibberish, with English words replacing the original forms and with rhyming words invented by the informants. Trying to account for each of them is a futile endeavor.
A similar string of numerals was in use among the native population in North America (among other places, in Maine), for example, een, teen, tother, fither, pimp. Presumably, the words were used as tally-marks, in counting by fives, tens, or twenties. The numerals “might have been brought to New England by English colonists and used by them in dealing with the American Indians in counting fish, beaver skins, and other articles of traffic.” Not improbably, later, the Anglo-Americans believed that those words were genuine American Indian numerals, while the other side took them for good English. However, the circumstances under which the numerals appeared in America have not been established with sufficient clarity. (The above statements in quotes have been lifted verbatim from the publications I used.)
In the string eena, meena, only eena resembles one or rather the Indo-European word for one. There is no need to trace the rhyme to English, because its variants have been attested in many countries and many languages (what is English about eena, meena, and the rest, except that mo rhymes with toe?). Even though the best-known variant from Yorkshire seems to go back to a Celtic source, it does not follow that eena was coined in Scots or Welsh. Most of what we can say about the mysterious rhyme is guesswork. Some fantasies are relatively easy to discard, but the positive result, the eagerly sought-for etymology, escapes us. However, meena seems to be a rhyme word, coined to go with eena, while the other two words, also gibberish, might have been chosen because they alliterate with meena. Nonsense words of this sort are to be expected in games. We remember eensy-weensy and itty-bitty. Some similarities can be explained by the universal characteristics of children’s language, but quite a few questions remained unanswered.
The greatest mystery of children’s rhymes and children’s slang is their spread and longevity. At a certain age “all” children know certain words that they learn from other children. What is the mechanism of this dissemination? Of course, folklore is passed on from generation to generation, but very young children are not a close-knit community. In any case, some words do not look like being transmitted by grownups. For the fun of it, I will quote the beginning of the Russian analog of eena, meena: “Eniki, beniki” (no one catches anybody in the continuation: the finale is gastronomic). Beniki is only a rhyming partner for eniki, but eniki sounds familiar. Obviously, those Russian children who use this counting-out rhyme did not learn it from Yorkshire drovers or Wawena Indians.
I have nothing quotable to say about the much-discussed second line. Most probably, tiger, nigger, baby, and the rest are nonce words. In the specific context of the racial slur, it is not unique to the eena, meena jingle. Slurs were also used in other rhymes including, ten little Niggers, ten little Indians, and ten little soldiers: those also have some source, and not necessarily a nice one. When the starting point is unknown, trying to assess the antiquity of the variants cannot result in a convincing conclusion. Perhaps a bottle (preferably, not a plastic one) will be washed up one day with a detailed explanation of the mystery. If it comes your way, share the information with this blog.
Featured image credit: Mistletoe by Tony Alter. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.