For generations, children across the globe have gleefully chanted the words “Eeny, meeny, miny, mo,” a familiar nursery rhyme that has stood the test of time. It’s a playful rhyme often used to make choices, but the innocent exterior hides a dark history.
A Rhyme Across Continents
In the 1800s, this nursery rhyme echoed through playgrounds both in the United States and Europe. While different countries had their own lyrics, the structure and melody remained remarkably consistent. However, tracing the true origins of “Eeny, meeny, miny, mo” proves to be a challenging endeavor. What is certain is that numerous variations of this rhyme exist. These variations may stem from a phenomenon referred to as Hobson-Jobson, where words with similar sounds are adapted to suit the linguistic nuances of different languages.
Some historians speculate that the nursery rhyme may be rooted in an ancient British counting system. Nevertheless, it is clear that “Eeny, meeny, miny, mo” evolved over time, adapting to the era and location in which it was sung. The version familiar to many Americans today goes like this:
“Eeny, meeny, miny, mo, catch a tiger by the toe, If he hollers, let him go, eeny, meeny, miny, mo.” This version, however, represents a more recent iteration. The previous rendition was significantly grimmer and more sinister.
The Dark Roots of ‘Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo’
Shedding light on the controversial past of “Eeny, meeny, miny, mo,” Vox reports that the 19th-century American version of this nursery rhyme had deep connections to the history of the slave trade. Instead of mentioning a tiger, it used a highly offensive racial slur to describe the consequences awaiting a runaway slave if caught by a white slave owner. In another interpretation, slave traders allegedly used this rhyme to pinch or pull a slave’s toe before a transaction (via An Injustice). Understandably, as society’s values evolved, the term was amended to “tiger” when the racial slur became socially unacceptable (via The Paris Review).
In a modern context, the racial undertones of the rhyme resurfaced in 2004 when two African-American sisters took legal action against Southwest Airlines. They accused a flight attendant of racial discrimination for using a version of the nursery rhyme to suggest selecting seats. The flight attendant playfully said, “Eenie, meenie, miny, mo, pick a seat, we gotta go.” While the sisters saw this as a racist remark, Southwest Airlines argued that the flight attendant used the rhyme in a light-hearted manner and was unaware of its racist implications. Ultimately, the sisters’ appeal was unsuccessful, and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the initial ruling.
A Haunting Past Beneath the Innocence
In conclusion, “Eeny, meeny, miny, mo,” a seemingly timeless and innocent nursery rhyme, conceals a deeply troubling history. While it has entertained children for centuries, the origins of this chant are far from child-friendly. It serves as a reminder of the importance of understanding the historical context and cultural sensitivities behind seemingly harmless rhymes and expressions.