Eeny meeny miney moe, eeny meeny macka racka

Playground rhymes.

For anyone brought up in an English-speaking playground, the books of Iona and Peter Opie are not to be missed. Their subject is the world of children’s play – songs, games and rhymes found in street and playground, passed from child to child, a lost world, half remembered, mostly forgotten, and hardly noticed by much too busy and serious adults. The success of their first book – “The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren” (1959) – or perhaps just the pleasure of watching children play – set the Opies off on a lifetime’s career of observing, collecting and writing about children’s play.

I asked my eight-year-old daughter[1] what she and her friends sang or played together at school in the playground, but this was evidently not a sufficiently sensible or interesting question. “Games”, she said, “You know…” It was not until I gave her an example – from the Opie’s book “The Singing Game” – that she came up with the following:

My boyfriend gave me an apple
My boyfriend gave me a pear
My boyfriend gave me a kiss on the lips
And threw me down the stairs
I gave him back his apple
I gave him back his pear
I gave him back his kiss on the lips
And threw him down the stairs
I threw him over China
I threw him over Spain
I threw him over Australia
And never saw him again.

This is a song or chant for a clapping game. The girls (these singing games are mostly performed by girls) stand face to face and clap against each other’s and their own hands in a set pattern in time with the beat of the song – as my daughter demonstrated as best she could, having only an inexpert adult – myself – to clap with.

The song is part of what the Opies record as “I am a pretty Dutch Girl“, which, they say, seems to have arrived in Britain in about 1959 from America and then “spread through the country like wildfire”. Clapping games themselves are much older, with records from Britain and the United States over the last one hundred years and more, but they apparently enjoyed a revival in Britain in the 1960’s as this and other American songs arrived.

Another `song’ my daughter chanted was this :

I had a little brother
His name was Tiny Tim
I put him in the bath tub
To see if he could swim
He drank up all the water
He ate up all the soap
He tried to eat the bath tub
But it wouldn’t go down his throat
In came the Doctor, in came the Nurse
In came the lady with the alligator purse
`Measles’ said the Doctor, `Mumps’ said the Nurse
`Pizza’ said the lady with the alligator purse
Out went the Doctor, out went the Nurse
Out went the lady with the alligator purse.

The first eight lines are identified by the Opies as coming from an early twentieth century bawdy song and the remainder as a game-song of American children from at least the 1920s. There, however, they sang of “a big black purse”. Wherever it came from, the “alligator purse” is a fine improvement in rhythm, even if the meaning remains utterly mysterious. Meanwhile, Steve Roud, another excellent student of children’s games[2], provides a version of these last lines collected in London in 1907, only there, its not a lady that comes in, but the devil !

The only other clapping song my daughter came up with is recorded by the Opies under “Less Popular Clapping Songs” without comment (and without the curious first four lines):

In Bombay, in the land of Alaska,
Far away, in Bombay
Uncle Duffy is puffing his pipe
Puff puff, puff puff
All the girls in Spain
Wash their knickers in champagne
And the boys in France
Do the belly wobble dance
And the dance they do
Is enough to tie a shoe
And the shoe they tie
Is enough to tell a lie
And the lie they tell
Is enough to ring a bell
And the bell they ring
Goes : Dingalingaling!

Perhaps, like others, this had a bawdy origin somewhere, or maybe its just the result of childish wit and delight in language.

Another of my daughter’s rhymes ran :

I went to a Chinese restaurant
To buy a loaf of bread
I gave the man a five-pound note
And this is what he said:
“My – name – is
Hong Kong fuey
Ice cream cornet
Fish and chips.”

Alternatively, the last four lines can go:

Elvis Presley
Girls are sexy
Sitting in the back seat
Drinking Pepsi
Having a baby
Calling it daisy
Come and join the fun fun fun!

These lines are obviously no older than the 1960’s and may be American. The first four lines – concerning a Chinese restaurant (or laundry) – are reported by the Opies from the 1950s, when they were often used as an introduction to a counting-out rhyme – that is, for de-selecting from a group until the last person becomes `it’ or `he’ or ‘on’, in a chasing game for example. In that guise the rhyme continued with whatever was the local and current form of “Chinese counting” – something along the lines of:

Eeny meeny macka racka
Ooray dominacker
Dominacker chikaracker
Om pom push!

I ‘invented’ that one. There are hundreds like it, more or less similar, and that is my half-remembered and approximate version of what we chanted many years ago. I have the feeling that there was a “lollipopper” in there somewhere too[3].  A female friend who was at primary school in Middlesex in the early to mid nineteen-sixties remembered it without a moment’s hesitation, and with the lollipopper too:

Eeny meeny macka racka
Rare-rye dominacker
Chickenpokker lollippopper
Om pom push!

Another (male) friend, who was at primary school in southern Hampshire in the early nineteen seventies, also knew it – but not to recite, because it had been strictly a girl’s rhyme, which they used in skipping games. So too my male, eighty year-old neighbour who was brought up in Woolston (Southampton) in the 1930s/early 1940s, who only knew it by repute and not to recite : “it was a girl’s game”.

My daughter had never heard of anything like it. She had heard of “Eeny meeny miney mo”, but she didn’t know how it went after that – which is, perhaps, an indication of some success in efforts to change old attitudes – as is the fact that among those who do know it the offending word has now been replaced by ‘tiger’, ‘tigger’ or similar.

In “Children’s Games in Street and Playground” (1969) the Opies conclude that while the Eeny meeny macka racka ‘gibberish’ rhyme itself is of no great antiquity (they found no records of it before the 1920s), its origins and those of similar rhymes – especially those beginning Inty minti, Eenty teenty or Zeenty teenty instead – are old – possibly very old. The connection has been made between at least some of these rhymes and the “Shepherd’s Score”, a traditional way of counting sheep, fish, stitches, and so on, in a number of counties in the north of England. The Opies found children in Keswick (in Cumbria) still using this method in their counting out. The Shepherd’s Score in turn has been traced, speculatively, to medieval welsh drovers; to still more ancient Celts driven to the hills by invading Anglo-Saxons; or, as the Opies prefer, to the ancient British tongue of Cumbria.

This seems an ambitious claim at first glance, until you get to numbers three and four in the Shepherd’s Score. Here is the beginning of a counting-out rhyme from Edinburgh (for some reason Scotland seems to be particularly rich in this form of the rhyme) : Inty, tinty, tethery, methery [4]. Here are the first four numbers of the traditional counting system used by the children from Keswick : Yan, Tan, Tethera, Methera – which is identical to the Shepherd’s Score reported, for example, from the Derbyshire Dales, and very similar to those from elsewhere [5]. The similarity of these otherwise peculiar and unfamiliar words is striking. And there are more. The earliest of this family of rhymes found by the Opies is this from 1820 :

                Zinty, tinti
                Tethera, methera
                Bumfa, litera
               Hover, dover
               Dicket, dicket
               . . . [6]

The Shepherd’s Score, meanwhile, includes bunfit/bumfit (15), lethera (7), hothera (8), dovera (9) and dick/dik (10)[7]. Also noteworthy is that both the Shepherd’s Score and the gibberish rhyme words for five are usually something starting with a plosive ‘p’, such as pimp or pump or push. As the Opies note, the Shepherd’s Score seems to be the ‘starting point, or inspiration, or source of occasional words’ of various versions of the children’s rhyme.  However, while a connection between the Shepherd’s Score and some versions of counting- out rhymes does not seem to have been entirely dismissed, the idea that the Score itself is of a great vintage is no longer respectable. Steve Roud summarises the scholarly situation thus :

‘Unfortunately . . . there is no evidence to support the assumption that the ‘shepherd’s score’ is of great age. The earliest mention of it in Britain is about 1745. In fact, in the opinion of many post-war experts, internal linguistic evidence, such as these numeral’s affinity with modern rather than old Welsh, demonstrates that they were introduced into the areas they were found a great deal later than the period of Anglo-Saxon settlement.’ [8]

In other words (I think), the Score probably arrived with modern Welsh speakers moving into England during the 18th Century.

Roud’s scepticism, meanwhile, is well trumped by Michael Barry[9]. In frustration at the unknowability of the origins of the Shepherd’s Score, he very nearly argues that it was only after folklorists started collecting and disseminating versions of the Score that they began to be known, but only ever second-hand and by repute. That is, no one is ever found who actually uses such a Score – for counting sheep, stitches, fish, or whatever ![10]

Roud’s summary of the scholarly situation is disappointing of course. However, while I am not qualified to comment on the linguistic evidence, I am not convinced that the lack of mention before 1745 is a clincher. A great deal of folk culture was not recorded before 1745. In fact most of what we know was not written down until the nineteenth century when collecting folklore and customs became fashionable.

Similarly, Roud also seems to suggest that counting-out rhymes are not so old either, on the grounds that the earliest recorded example is from 1759 (or possibly 1611 in France)[11]. On the one hand, the fact that childhood was, for most, a very different experience before formal education arrived – lots of work and no ‘rithmatic – could support Roud’s suggestion. But on the other, to suggest that children neither played together nor knew how to count even to five before the eighteenth century seems unlikely. It seems to me much more likely that we simply have no records.

But to return to the ‘gibberish rhyme’, these examples are from an on-line exchange on :[12]

From Salford in the 1930s, where my mum lived as a girl, and passed on to me.

Eeny meeny mackeracka
Rare eye dummeracka
Chickeracka rare eye
Om pom push

My great uncle Albert who lived from 1902-1979 used to tell me

Eeni meeni mackeraca er rye dominacka chicka packa lullapacka rum pum push

From my nan born in 1920s west London

Eeny meeny mackaracka
Rare rye dominacka
Chickalacka lollipoppa
Om Pom push

These examples support the Opie’s report that they could not find examples of the ‘gibberish rhyme’ before the 1920s. However, it depends what you’re looking for. They specifically say that ‘Eenie, meenie, macca, racka’ was not known to Bolton, the author of one of the first collections of children’s counting-out rhymes, in 1888. But the following was known to Bolton :

Eenie, Meenie, Tipsy, toe;
Olla bolla Domino,
Okka, Pokka dominocha,
Hy! Pon! Tush![13]

It is clearly the `same’ rhyme, even though it lacks the macka racka. So the ‘gibberish’ is at least as old as the 1880s.[14]

Eeny meeny miny moe.

Historically speaking, the most well-known version of the eeny meeny family of rhymes is probably :

Eeny meeny miny moe
Catch a n—– by his toe
If he hollers let him go
Eeny meeny miney moe

As noted earlier, the offensive word has been replaced over time by tiger or tigger, or some-such. This seems to have happened during the 50s in the States and in the 70s in the UK, presumably reflecting the advance of awareness of racism in each country. Meanwhile, the rhyme is first reported from the late 19th Century, by Bolton again, who suggested that it probably originated in America. [15] The Opies agree, given the vocabulary.

There is also a theory that the original origin of “Eeny meeny miny moe” and possibly of the mention of a black person too, is from the Portugese/West African Creole language of the islands of São Tomé and Principe, which lie off the West coast of equatorial Africa. The language is known as São Tomense. [16] Derek Bickerton notes the following: in São Tomense, ine is used to turn the next word into a plural; the next word (of the rhyme) is mina, which means child – therefore, children. Meanwhile, mana means sister and mu means my. In other words, ine mina mana mu is São Tomense for my sister’s children !  Bickerton also notes, in support of the theory, that we have a children’s rhyme on the one hand and a reference to children on the other; a reference to a black person in the rhyme and a language spoken by black people – presumably including at least some black slaves in 18th or early 19th Century America. He then suggests that, somewhere in the US, children already familiar with Score-derived counting-out rhymes heard the São Tomense expression, noticed the resemblance and proceeded to incorporate the new words into a counting-out rhyme. He also confesses that he has no evidence to back this history up, but concludes that an Afro-Creole source for eeeny meeny miney mo `would seem to be at least as convincing as a Celtic one.’

Or possibly not. The only other writer I can find picking up on this theory is the Carribbean poet, novelist, and local creole language advocate, Frank Martinus Arion. Arion is from the Dutch Antilles, and his topic is a creole known as Guene. Having repeated Bickerton’s analysis of the São Tomense expression (without acknowledgement), and noting that a creole word maina means to quiet down, he concludes that the real meaning of the eeny meeny rhyme is in fact : “Children quiet down/You have to go to bed now/It is finished. Look at this whip” ! This would have been used by a – probably black – nanny to the children in her charge. [17]

And that is not all. Arion is a Dutch speaker. According to a Dutch contributor to the thread mentioned above, he also discusses the well know Dutch version of the eeny meeny rhyme, also used for counting-out.[18] It goes like this :

Iene miene mutte      [ Eena meena mutte
Tien pond grutten       Ten pounds of groats
Tien pond kaas            Ten pounds of cheese
Iene miene mutte       Eena meena mutte
Is de baas
             Is the boss]        

Arion then reports a creole – probably São Tomense – song, sung by black slaves, which goes (or went) like this :

Iene miene muito      
Tempo de n’grutta
Tempo de n’kasala
Iene miene muito
Es de baixe.

Arion’s analysis of this rhyme goes like this: Iene is a pluralizer; miene is from the Portuguese word for girl, menina; muito is the Portuguese word for much/ many; tempo means time; n’grutta means to make love; kasala comes from the Portuguese casar se, to marry; baixa is the Portuguese word for down or below.  So the translation of the song into English would be :

Many girls.         
Time to make love
Time to marry
Many girls
Down there below.

Male slaves were put on the upper decks, the women below on the lower decks.

One has to note that as an advocate for the contribution of West African-origin creoles to Western culture, Arion’s arguments may be somewhat motivated.

Nonetheless, it’s a great story.

Eeny meeny . . .

It is time now to return to basics, that is, to eeny and meeny. Whatever contribution Shepherd’s Scores or West African slaves may or may not have made to the eeny meeny family of rhymes, it is noteworthy that a great many of the rhymes begin with these two words, or versions thereof. And It is also the case that these rhymes are usually used by children for counting-out. As we have seen from the Dutch example above, the rhyme is not confined to English speakers, and similar beginnings are to be found in German (including by Bolton), Danish, Norwegian and elsewhere[19].

It is clear enough that eeny is simply a version of one – een in Dutch, ein in German, aan in old English, eena in a Shepherd’s Score from North Yorkshire[20], oan in Scottish Gaelic, un in Welsh. The addition of the y, that is, the ee sound, would then be just a bit of fun, playing with sounds, as in the more obvious onery, twoery way of counting (which was the most common way in Bolton’s day). Meeny would then be simply a fun rhyme to follow.  But we can go on : miney and mo alliterate with meeny; similarly, the  n occupies the same position and internally alliterates in eeny, meeny and miney ; the vowels go ee i o, which form a natural series produced from the front to the back of the mouth (as in fee, fi, fo fum, or ee eye o). David Rubin and colleagues point out these and other structural-linguistic features to explain how children manage to remember these rhymes.[21] My point is that they also help to explain why they are so popular and persistent. The fact is, they are fun !

It seems reasonable to conclude that the eeny meeny family of rhymes may have multiple sources. It certainly has multiple traditions and perhaps multiple occasions of semi-independent invention, when the need for a means of counting-out was (and is) required. Above all, it is the result of generations of children in countless playgrounds delighting in playing with the musicality of language – and with nonsense.


While counting-out rhymes are common to both boys and girls, clapping games and their songs, as mentioned above, are generally girls’ games. Perhaps that’s why I recognised none of the songs in the Opie’s singing games book, and none of my daughter’s. One game we used to play, however, was for the boys only – the utterly serious game of flick cards . . .


  1. This was in 1994. She had attended Ridgemead Primary School, Bishops Waltham, in Hampshire, England.

  2. Roud, Steve The Lore of the Playground: One hundred years of children’s games, rhymes and traditions, Random House, London, 2010, p169

  3. I was at Eastwick Primary School, Great Bookham, Surrey, England, from 1960 to 1966.



  6. ‘The Chatterings of the Pica’, Charles Taylor,1820, described as being old.


  8. Roud, Steve The Lore of the Playground: One hundred years of children’s games, rhymes and traditions, Random House, London, 2010, p354. NOTE : I began this piece recommending the Opies’ work. I would now also recommend Steve Roud’s book, which is much shorter and covers everything you need to know.

  9. Traditional Enumeration in the North Country, Michael Barry, Folk Life, Volume 7, Issue 1 (01 January 1969), pp. 75-91

  10. See also : Major and Minor Chronotopes in a Specialized Counting System, Donald N Anderson, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Vol. 21, Issue 1, pp. 124–141, ISSN 1055-1360, EISSN 1548-1395. © 2011 by the American Anthropological Association.

  11. Roud, ibid


  13. Bolton, Henry Carrington, The Counting-out Rhymes of Children: Their Antiquity, Origin, and Wide Distribution. New York: D. Appleton & Co. (1888).

  14. Incidentally, as I recall, we used parts of the rhyme as a rousing chant in Cubs/Scouts in the 1960s – led by adults – much in the manner of the contemporary All Blacks’ Maori-style chant:

    Dominakka chikkarakka, Dominakka chikkarakka, Dominakka chikkarakkaOm pom push ! 

  15. See,_meeny,_miny,_moe

  16. An Afro-Creole Origin for Eena meena Mina Mo, Derek Bikerton, American Speech, Vol. 57, No. 3 (Autumn 1982), Duke University Press.; p227

  17. The value of Guene for folklore and literary culture, Frank Martinus Arion, in A History of Literature in the Caribbean: English- and Dutch-speaking countries, Albert James Arnold, Julio Rodríguez-Luis, J. Michael Dash, John Benjamins Publishing, Jan 1, 2001, p 415-419

  18. My research became complicated here. The contributor gives no reference other than to say she found the information on Wikipedia. I have been unable to do so, even in the Dutch version. Meanwhile it is possible that the material is to be found in the Arion paper referenced immediately above. However, I do not have access to the complete paper to confirm this.

  19. Opies 1969


  21. Children’s memory for counting-out rhymes: A cross-language comparison, David C Rubin, Violeta Ciobanu, William Langston, Psychonomic Bulletin and Review 1997, 4(3). 421-424




Flick cards

By the early 1960s, cigarette cards had long gone – ended by the austerities of the War – but tea cards had replaced them. The games that my father used to play with cigarette cards, we learned to play from our older schoolmates with the new tea cards – or, more correctly, trade cards. We collected them avidly, and won and lost great fortunes daily playing the game of flick cards.

Two boys (only boys) would stand some eight feet or so from a playground wall, each armed with a handful of cards. A card was held between two fingers and then launched towards the wall, by each player in turn, by means of a quick flick of the wrist. There were two versions of the game. The object of one was to get your card to land on another already lying on the ground. The first player to achieve this won all the cards previously thrown. In the other – known as ‘Death’ – the aim was to knock down two or more cards that had been lent against the wall. The player that toppled the last card was the winner and, again, took all the cards already thrown.

‘Death’ called for accuracy and a strong wrist, but in terms of rules was uncomplicated. In the other game, however, as with many children’s games, the simple scenario of the one card landing on another was qualified by a number of arcane requirements. Should a card overlap another by only its merest edge – defined by the thin white border surrounding the card’s illustration – this was called “tipses” and did not count. All ambiguous overlaps were anxiously examined at close quarters. If necessary, spectators would adjudicate. If the case was judged to be “tipses” the game continued. Should a card stall in mid flight and flutter down onto another, this was called “flutters” and was also invalid. So too was “undies”, where a card slid beneath another on landing. With these rules, vast numbers of cards could accumulate, and tension intensify, before at last the prize was won.

These tea cards were issued by a range of companies but circulation was dominated by Brooke Bond. At that time, their cards were almost wholly devoted to wildlife subjects. They began in 1954 with “British Birds” and thereafter produced a series or two each year, covering birds, wild flowers, butterflies, fish and animals from Britain and across the world. By the time we started collecting, probably in 1963 or ‘64, cards from the very first series were hardly to be found – occasional and somewhat mysterious relics of some ancient past. However, subsequent sets were still in circulation and new sets kept arriving, providing fodder for our boyish kleptomania as well as for our effortlessly assimilative young minds.

Card swopping
Card collecting, Eastwick Primary School, Great Bookham, Surrey, 1966.

I inherited an interest in wildlife from my parents, but there is  no doubt that Brooke Bond’s tea cards fed that interest and caused it to grow and become knowledgeable. By the age of ten I not only knew my British birds – those illustrated in “Bird Portraits” (1957) and “Wild Birds in Britain” (1965) at any rate – and my butterflies (“British Butterflies”, 1963) and wild animals (“British Widllife”, 1958) – but I was also familiar with the wild animals of Africa and Asia (“African Wildlife”, 1961; “Asian wildlife”, 1962), exotic birds (“Tropical Birds”, 1961) and endangered species from across the world (“Wildlife in Danger”, 1963).


All these sets were explicitly “issued in the interests of education”, according to the backs of the albums in which we stuck them, and they clearly served their intended purpose. It’s a pity then that although Brooke Bond continued to issue picture cards, they later stooped to trivia – cartoon turtles for example, or anthropormorphised chimpanzees – offered, presumably, in the interests of increasing sales.

To be fair, Brooke Bond continued to return to wildlife subjects, and to other educational topics, including in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund, as they first did with “Wildlife in Danger”. What they did not do, however, was to maintain the pictorial quality of the earlier sets, a feature which was at least as important as the information they conveyed in catching and keeping our interest. Between 1957 and 1966 those early sets were more often than not illustrated by C.F. Tunicliffe, whose both naturalistic and visually attractive style of painting was perfect for our unsophisticated eye – and our desire for facts. Some of his illustrations still rank among the finest examples of wildlife art, those for “Bird Portraits” in particular – the teal leaping from the water; the house sparrow in flight; the barn owl floating cream and white against the dusk :

BP Teal   BP House sparrow   BP Barn owl

Tunicliffe’s work seems to have established a house style during those years, so that when other artists were brought in – EV Petts for “Freshwater Fish” (1960); Richard Ward for two butterfly series (“British Butterflies”, 1963 and “Butterflies of the World”, 1964) – the cards remained instantly recognisable as coming from Brooke Bond.


I rediscovered how much I had learnt as a child, how many animals and birds had become familiar to me through collecting Brooke Bond’s tea cards, many years later. I was living in South India and I went with a friend to visit the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary in the southern state of Kerala. The Sanctuary is set in the forests of the great chain of the Western Ghat mountains, centred around a long and many fingered lake created by the damming of the Periyar River.

We rode up into the hills by bus and then walked from the village into the reserve. The narrow road ran between thick forest on one side and the lake on the other. In the water, or perched on grey stumps of drowned trees with wings held wide to dry in the sun, were thin, cormorant-like birds. I knew at once that they were darters (“Tropical Birds”, 1961). They are not the most beautiful of birds – snakelike, ragged, prehistoric – but they were old familiars and a thrill to see for the first time in the feather.

Shortly afterwards I spotted an animal moving in the trees above us, a brown, cream and enormous squirrel – the Indian Giant Squirrel (“Asian Wildlife”, 1962) – providing for a moment an almost exact image of Tunicliffe’s illustration, before it turned and made off, heavily, through the foliage.

A few yards further on a herd of wild pigs burst out of the long grass and hurried across the road, long snouted and round bellied – indistinguishable in fact from the domestic Indian pig which roots and wallows in every village ditch. However, these were wild and also familiar  from “Asian Wildlife”.

Darter  Giant Squirrel  Wild pigs

The next day we went out onto the lake in a motor launch, together with other visitors to the reserve, and my private adventure continued. There were many more darters, and more wild pigs along the shore. Then we spied a dark line of animals making their way slowly across a hillside, too distant for a satisfactory view even through my binoculars, but instantly recognised anyway. These were Gaur, the largest member of the ox family.

We could not have imagined a closer view of the wild elephants we came upon next. Seeing them at the edge of the lake, the helmsman brought the launch in close. While a huge bull led his herd unhurriedly away into the forest, two cows and a calf plunged into the water towards us. They stood knee deep – or in the case of the calf, up to its chin – and proceeded to threaten us by swaying their great heads and splashing on the water with their trunks, making their indignation at our intrusion  clear. Elephants, of course, are hardly unfamiliar even to those who have never collected Brook Bond tea cards. Nonetheless, the Asiatic Elephant is there among them.

I have continued to meet old friends in the wild in India ever since: Chittal, or Spotted Deer; Nilgai antelope, or Blue Bull; a Tiger in the scrub forest of Ranthambore in Rajasthan; Blackbuck; a Gaur bull, huge and unhurried in the headlights of our jeep, in Andhra Pradesh; Hanuman Langurs, named after the monkey-god hero of the Hindu epic poem the Ramayana; Giant Fruit Bats hung like peculiar fruits by day or rowing soundlessly overhead at dusk; and Mongooses in a back garden in Madras city.

 IMG_0001 IMG_0002 IMG_0003Gaur

  IMG_0005 IMG_0006IMG_0007

Not only animals, but tropical birds as well: the fairy bluebird, the painted snipe and the orange (or scarlet) minivet, the males black and bright red, the females black and brilliant yellow.

IMG_0009         IMG_0008


I still have my collection of Brook Bond tea cards, won so many years ago, or bargained for “swops”. I add to it occasionally, when an album turns up in a charity shop or on e-bay.  And even now, here in the UK, there are a number of long familiar birds and animals which I have yet to meet – the Natterjack Toad, the Purple Emperor butterfly and the ring ouzel for example.  If and when I do happen upon them, I will, of course, recognise them at once with a very special delight.


Royton, Lancs, 1950s.

The following games were recalled by my sister-in-law Elaine Bundell (née Vacher). She was born in 1952 and lived as a child in Royton, near Oldham, in the general vicinity of Manchester, in what was then part of the county of Lancashire, in the North of England.


Ping pong pee and the P C lantern
My black cat can play the pianer
He can play for two and a tanner
Kerb or the red brick wall ?

“This was a “choosing” rhyme for a running race game.  The children wanting to be chosen stood  in a line with both hands held out, palm up. The “chooser” went along the line tapping each hand in turn.  The child whose hand was tapped at the end of the rhyme on the word “wall” was the challenger and could choose either the kerb or the wall.  (I played this game in the playground at Byron Street Junior School in Royton.  I seem to remember there was an undercover area with a kerb to step up into it and a brick wall at the back.)  If the challenger chose the kerb then she (again, it was usually a girl) ran to the kerb from a chosen line some distance away, back to the line then to the wall and back to the line again.  Meanwhile the chooser ran to the wall first then to the kerb.  The winner was the person back to the line the second time.  I don’t remember whether the winner became the chooser or if the challenger became the chooser.  Even if there were only two people playing, the formality of the rhyming and hand tapping took place.”

This is the game which the Opies[1] call kerb or wall, preceded by a counting out or choosing method commonly used to begin this game. They give the following example of the game’s rhyme:

Bim, bam, boo, and a wheezy anna
My black cat can play the piano
One, two, three, kick him up a tree
Kerb or wall ?

This was reported from Stockport, which is not far from Manchester and Royton. Both rhymes are noticeably nonsensical, especially their first lines, which leads the Opies to add the following disparaging note to their example : `Versions in various stages of decomposition throughout the north country’. It is not clear, however, what the more composed original might have been.


Nebuchadnezzar, King of the Jews
Bought his wife a pair of shoes
When the shoes began to wear
Nebuchadnezzar began to swear
When the swear began to stop
Nebuchadnezzar bought a shop
When the shop began to sell
Nebuchadnezzar bought a bell
When the bell began to ring
Nebuchadnezzar began to sing
Doh ray me far so la ti doh !

“A rhyme for doing “two-ball”.  Bouncing two balls alternately against a wall underhand.  On each rhyming word, doing a different action, eg throwing one ball overhand, bouncing one ball on the ground before hitting the wall (I seem to remember this was called for some reason “tobogganing”), throwing under the leg against the wall and, the hardest of all, behind the back.  Each action lasted for the complete rhyme, saying the rhyme again and doing the next action until the ball was dropped then it was the turn of the next girl (I don’t  remember boys ever playing two-ball).  I also think that when reciting the “doh ray me”  the action was done on every word.”

Steve Roud[2] reproduces the same rhyme, word for word, reported from Kent in the 1940s, also used for games involving the bouncing of balls.

Elaine remembers another rhyme used for playing two-ball:

Lady, baby, gypsy, queen,
Elephant, monkey, tangerine.

“I think it was simply a case of throwing the balls against the wall and doing a different action on the rhyming words.”

Such ball- bouncing games, says Roud, were exclusively girl’s games. They were also `immensely popular’ – which makes it all the more striking that they `seem nowadays to have disappeared’.


Who’s got the ball ?
See I haven’t got it
It isn’t in my pocket
Who’s got the ball ?

“This was a ball game where someone threw a small ball over their shoulder to a group of waiting children.  Whoever grabbed or caught the ball put it behind their back.  Everyone then stood in line with their hands behind their backs saying the rhyme and showing each hand in turn.  At the start of the rhyme the thrower turned round and watched the action then at the end of the rhyme had to pick out the child who had the ball.  If they guessed right then they had another go and if not then the person with the ball became the thrower.  (I remember playing this at the Mission Infants School in Royton and the first thrower was often one of the dinner ladies.)”

This is a version of the game Queenie. ‘Queenie is the perpetual delight of little girls aged eight and nine’ write the Opies. The commonest version of the rhyme begins ‘Queenie, queenie’ but the Opies note that` in Scotland and North-east England’ the rhyme begins instead with` Alabala’. They do not specifically give any example from the Manchester area .

`Alabala’ (also, ‘Ali baba’ and ‘Ala wala’) also occurs in examples of what the Opies call Chinese Counting, so-called not only because a Chinaman often appears, but also – perhaps more so – because the rhymes are made up of nonsense. Elaine remembered this one :

Ah-ra chickara
Chickara rooney
Rooney poony
Ping pong piney
Ala- bala-basta
Chinese Sam

“This may have been a choosing rhyme but I remember girls just walking around arm-in-arm chanting the rhyme.”


  1. “Children’s Games in Street and Playground“, Iona and Peter Opie, 1969.
  2. The Lore of the Playground: One hundred years of children’s games, rhymes and traditions, Steve Roud, Random House, London, 2010.