eeny, meany, miney, moe

These are simply nonsense words used in various children’s counting-out rhymes. The words have no intrinsic significance and variants are found in several different languages. There is no canonical version of the rhyme and a great number of variations on the rhyme are found.

The oldest known versions date to 1855 and are found in the publication Notes & Queries:

The Schoolboy Formula...Eeny, meeny, moany, mite...Eeny, meeny, tipty, te.

And this one, which is claimed to date to New York City of 1815:

Hana, mana, mona, mike;
Barcelona, bona, strike;
Hare, ware, frown, venac;
Harrico, warrico, we, wo, wac

Jago’s 1882 Glossary of the Cornish Dialect has this version from Cornwall:

Ena, mena, mona, mite,
Basca, lora, hora, bite.

Newell’s 1883 Games and Songs of American Children contains several variants, including this one from Massachusetts:

Eny, meny, mony, my,
Tusca, leina, bona, stry
Kay bell, broken well,
We, wo, wack.

Bolton’s 1888 Counting-Out Rhymes of Children records the following German version. Note the similarity with the former:

Ene, tene, mone, mei,
Pastor, lone, bone, strie
Ene, fune, herke, berke
Wer? Wie? Wo? Was?

Various tales, mostly untrue, about this children’s counting rhyme are circulating. The rhyme is not an ancient number system that comes down to us through the mists of time. (Usually the tales say the words are Anglo-Saxon or Celtic numbers.)

Early American versions of the rhyme tend to contain the line catch a nigger by the toe. In early British versions, chicken or tinker are used instead, but even in the Britain the racist version was common by the early years of the 20th century. With children’s rhymes such as these, there is no “original” version and there are countless early variants. The use of nigger is just one variant among many. Claims that any counting rhyme that begins with eeny, meany, miney, moe is racist are absurd. There are racist versions of the rhyme to be sure, but most versions are innocent.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes)

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