A Counting Out Song

Notes edited by John McGivering and John Radcliffe, with additions from Daniel Hadas and Alastair Wilson.

Publication history

The poem was written between the beginning of 1919, when the Versailles Conference began, and 1923 when it first appeared in Land and Sea tales for Scouts and Guides. as the last item in the book, following “An English School”. Collected in the Sussex Edition, Volume 16, page 219 and Volume 34, page 357, the Burwash Edition, Volumes 14 and 27, Definitive Verse and Inclusive Verse.

Notes on the Text

[Title] The spelling varies, but this is a children’s game used for picking sides for some other game or choosing one player to be “It” in a game of “Tick” or “Tag” who has to catch or touch another player who then becomes “It” Verses 2, 3 and 4 explain how that terrible rune might have been used in prehistoric times to choose men for unpleasant and dangerous jobs. See also “The Sons of Martha”

[Verse 1]

The earliest known published versions in the English language date to 1855, one of which used the words ‘eeny, meeny, moany, mite’ and the other ‘hana, mana, mona, mike.’ Other versions have also appeared in Britain and America, as well as in several other European languages.

Many theories exist about the “real” meaning of the first line that the children sing, although the most commonly accepted one is that these are just nonsense syllables. Another theory posed by Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas in their book, The Hiram Key, suggests that the words are the first numbers in the counting system of the pre-Celtic Britons.

Another possibility is that the British occupiers of India brought a doggerel version of an Indian children’s rhyme used in the game of carambola: ‘ubi eni mana bou, baji neki baji thou, elim tilim latim gou.’ (From Kamakhya, a socio-cultural study, by Nihar Ranjan Mishra. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld, 2004, p.157) See

Eenie: This is a nonsense-word used in the first line of the most popular counting-out rhymes among children in Britain and the United States of America. (Oxford English Dictionary: use was first noted in 1855, and these verses in 1923.

When doorway lilacs bloom  Of  An echo of Walt Whitman’s  poem  “When lilacs last in the dooryard-bloomd “  [D.H.]

[Line 10] nigger: an offensive term for one of the black races, not now used.

[Verse 2]

[Line 2] Were the First Big Four of the Long Ago: The phrase “Big Four” was a journalistic reference to the four principal participants at the Versailles Peace Conference, which took place in the first six months of 1919, after the war in Western Europe had ended on November 11, 1918.  (They were Great Britain, France, Italy, and the United States of America.)

Thereafter, the principal participants in any collection of people or other bodies might be called “The Big [appropriate number]”.  In  Britain, where the 117 separate railway companies which formed the railway network had just been amalgamated into four large companies, they were also collectively known as “The Big Four”.

The children’s author, Arthur Ransome, entitled one of his books, ‘The Big Six’, as having six main characters. [A.J.W.]

[Line 3] thirty degrees: it now slopes 23.4°.

[Line 7]  the flesh was frail  See Matthew 26.41, ‘the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak’. [D.H.]

[Verse 3]

[Line 1] Glacial Epoch: There have been a series of ‘Ice Ages’ stretching back many millions of years, with milder periods in between when the ice receded. Early Man and his ancestors had to survive in fearsomely harsh conditions.

[Line 5] Britannia: now Great Britain.
Gaul: now France

[Verse 4]

[Line 10] Man is born to toil and woe: an echo of Job 5, 7: ‘Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward’, and similar references.

[Line 11 One will cure the other: a sentiment also expressed in the verses following “How the Camel got his Hump” in the Just-So Stories.

[Verse 5]

[Line 4] Lossiemouth: a town on the Moray Firth in the North-East of Scotland.

[Verse 6]

[Line 1] rune: Incised ancient magical letters. See the notes on “Weland’s Sword” in Puck of Pook’s Hill, and on “The Cat that Walked by Himself” in the Just So Stories.

[Line 10]  What’s the use of doing so  See Ecclesiastes 1.3, ‘What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?’ [D.H.]



[J. McG.]

©John McGivering 2007 All rights reserved