counting out

Counting out rhymes

Children have a variety of ways to fairly decide who is 'it', Julia Bishop explores the development of 'counting out' games.

The operation of counting-out is a very important mystery in many puerile games. The boys or girls stand in a row, and the operator begins with the counting-out rhyme, appropriating a word to each, till he comes to the person who receives the last word, and who is accordingly “out.” This operation is continued till there is only one left, who is the individual chosen for the hero of the game, whatever it may be.

It is fascinating to read this description of counting out published in 1849 by James Orchard Halliwell, an antiquarian and literary scholar. The procedure has clearly not changed fundamentally in 160 years, though a circle rather than a row may be the more prevalent formation today.

Halliwell went on to provide several examples, taken from ‘a host of rhymes employed for this purpose’:

One-ery, two-ery,
Tick-ery, tee-vy;
Hollow-bone, crack-a-bone,
Pen and eevy.
Ink, pink,
Pen and ink;
A study, a stive,
A stove, and a stink!

One-ery, two-ery,
Tickery, teven;
Alabo crackabo,
Ten and eleven;
Spin, spon,
Must be gone;
Alabo, crackabo,
O-U-T spells out.

Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales (1849), pp. 334-5.

While it is striking to find a close parallel to the ‘Inky Pinky’ example, and the ‘O-U-T spells out’ ending was also common throughout the 20th century, it does not follow that all counting out rhymes are demonstrably old, let alone ancient, as has sometimes been claimed. The Opies point out that variants of the ‘one-ery two-ery’ rhyme, so common in the 19th century, were unknown to children in the 20th, whose preferred rhyme began ‘Eenie meenie macca racca’. Today, this has in turn fallen out of favour, though ‘Ibble obble’ and ‘Ip dip’ rhymes and their variants, commonly found by the Opies, have persisted into the current century.

Children perform a 'counting out' rhymes to decide who will be 'it'

Each generation, it seems, has its own favourite nonsense words, and the rhymes and rhythms that they suggest. It is this attention to sound over sense in many counting out rhymes that has inspired so many variants and led to new trends. They exemplify what the linguist John Widdowson has dubbed the alternative ‘three Rs’ of children’s oral culture – rhyme, rhythm and repetition.

There’s clearly plenty of scope for innovation, as the examples here show. Words can be altered to produce new, and often humorous imagery, such as the attribution of childhood illnesses to domestic animals in ‘Ip Dip Doo’.

New nonsensical words can be coined to produce internal rhyme and alliteration, as in ‘Onika Bonika’.

A group of boys in Sheffield use the rhyme 'oinka boinka' to chose who is 'it' in their game of 'tig'

The same trends are also found in counting out rhymes from other parts of the world. Halliwell recorded Swedish examples and ‘Akkar Bakkar’ provides a Pakistani one. The prevalence of nonsense words can further foster crossovers between rhymes in different languages, and even macaronic examples in which words deriving from different languages are mixed in the same rhyme.

This footage shows a Punjabi counting out game being played in Yorkshire, 2002

The other common characteristic of these rhymes is the way the children who shape them have drawn on other sources to recreate the chant to their liking. ‘Up the Ladder’ is a ragbag of other influences, including a folktale and a nursery rhyme.

Other apparent influences may be the shepherds’ score, a traditional method of counting sheep documented in parts of northern England, Wales and Scotland, though not recorded prior to the 18th century. These begin ‘Een teen peever pepperer’, ‘Yan tan tethera methera’, ‘’Ainy bainy banny batry’ and so on. Another possible influence may be rhyming slang, as in ‘Inky Pinky’.

Ultimately all the rhymes boil down to a 2-beat meter. Many are march-like in rhythm, like ‘Black Shoe’, while others have a more lilting ‘swung’ rhythm, as in ‘Onika Bonika’ or ‘One Potato, Two Potato’. Some are largely monosyllabic in composition and so invite a point or tap on every word while others include more unstressed syllables and polysyllabic words. ‘My Blue Ship’ exemplifies elements of both.

This footage was filmed in London in 1957 and shows a group of boys performing the well-known counting out rhyme ‘One Potato, Two Potato’

Indeed, some chants are based on the repetition of polysyllabic words, such as ‘Coconut, coconut, coconut, crack’ or ‘Banana, banana, banana, split’. These exemplify another way in which the words and actions can be linked, in that the final phrase or word of the rhyme forms indicates the action associated with it. Both ‘Coconut Crack’ and ‘Banana Split’, for example, are played by counting out the players’ clasped fists, which must be parted into two separate fists if they coincide with the words ‘crack’ or ‘split’. Likewise, the ending formula ‘O-U-T spells OUT’ results in the player stepping out of the circle or line, as do the phrases ‘Out goes you’ and ‘You are not It’.

In some rhymes, however, this step is delayed, and the elimination of the player made more randomised, by the introduction of a short dialogue in which the person arrived at is asked to name a colour or choose a number which is then spelt or counted out, prior to the ending formula, as in ‘Up the Ladder’. The Opies call such counting out rhymes ‘participatory dips’.

This footage was filmed in London in 1957 and shows a child using the rhyme ‘Up the Ladder’ for counting out.

The American folklorist Kenneth Goldstein has suggested that children can become quite adept at knowing which number or colour to pick in order to influence who goes out, thus turning what seems on the face of it to be a game of chance into a game of strategy.

The ingenuity required of the person counting out is glimpsed in the films of ‘Pepsi Cola’ and ‘One Potato’ (though the rhyme has not been well synchronised with the actions of the boys in this case). They must find ways to include themselves as they go round the group’s outstretched fists, and there is an obvious challenge when their own fists are eliminated but they must continue to count the others!

  • Julia Bishop
  • Dr Julia Bishop is interested in cultural traditions of all kinds, but has specialised in traditional song and children's folklore. She is currently editing James T. R. Ritchie's book of Edinburgh schoolchildren's lore, language and games, The Bumbee (Playtime) Bell, for publication and, with a team of five colleagues, is preparing a critical edition of the James Madison Carpenter Collection of Traditional Song and Drama.

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