Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Childhood Counting-Out Games and Rhymes

Credit: Amazon.com
This may be the most unusual post I have ever done, or ever will do. It started quite innocently – with trying to recall some things from the past; specifically in this case, some of the “old sayings” I heard from my father’s family. Then it grew into a three-day-long obsession in a quest to learn what I could about the following words that my father, and others in his family, used to say:

“One sort, two sort, little zigga zan
Bobtail dominicker little toy tan
Virgil, Mary, Hailum, Skaylum,
Ringum, rangum, zilem, zolum
Jingum, jangum, bilum, bolum, BUCK”

What the heck did it mean? I remember when I was a child asking just that and the answer was always, “it’s just an old saying; just foolishness.”

I don't ever recall that I myself ever repeated that old line; thought it was rather silly.

Looking at it now, it's strange with its made up words. Was it based on anything or just something completely made up?

Through the wonder of the WorldWide Web, I simply entered “bobtail dominicker,” which shone a bright light on this saying and many others. “The Counting-Out Rhymes of Children,” a 1888 book by Henry Carrington Bolton, was the first entry that popped up containing the mysterious "bobtail dominicker" words.

It is beyond the scope of this blog to tell you all about the book, other than to say it is a scholarly volume detailing counting-out rhymes from all over the world. A branch of oral folklore, they consist of a jingle of words with swing and rhyme that have little or no meaning. (Well thank goodness!)

They are used (or at least were in past days) to find out who is to begin any game that children engage in. They have many regional permutations and the ones from England, Wales and Scotland are the ones the jingles I heard seem to be based on. This, of course, makes perfect sense, since the early settlers of the U.S. in this region were primarily of Scot-Irish descent. Over generations, words were changed to suit the locale or preference or the speaker. For instance, in the example above, the original version, the third line was "Virgin Mary," and changed by Protestants to "Virgil, Mary."

The little jingles I heard in my family were not used by us in our play (we had our own; more on that later). They were simply something our parents and grandparents had used as children and repeated to amuse and entertain us.

In addition to the one mentioned above, my memory was jogged when I found others as I read through this detailed book. Below are others I often heard:

"Ziggity Zaggety hornet’s cuff
How many fingers have I got up?"


"Wire, briar, lumber lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew east, one flew west
One flew over the cuckoo’s nest."

And this one: 

Ink, stink, stilum stew
Nobody stinks but barely you.
(In the version reported by Bolton, “out” was used instead of “stinks)

Sorry this is not a very clear copy of the Bolton book but is the only one I could find. Credit: Google books

The thing that strikes me now is, "have these counting-out games for children completely died out?" Since I don’t myself ever recall repeating any of the ones above, am I to assume that after my father’s generation they are no longer a part of oral folklore? I must ask my cousins if any of them have a recall of these? What about in the more secluded regions, especially in Appalachia where traditions cling? Something to learn more about. 

Television was in its early days in the 1950s. Agrarian society was being transformed into an industrial way of life; modern times were upon us; adults spent less time with their children, talking to them, telling them the old stories. Children were sent out to play while parents struggled to keep up with the house duties; there was less time for visiting on front porches; grandma or grandpa, the source for many of the stories of old,  no longer lived with their adult children in their declining years but were sent off to the nursing home.  

And that doesn't even touch on an explanation of the dying out of old traditions/sayings/stories of today. Text-messaging, e-mail, video games, Internet, extra-curriculum activities have all segmented children from their elders. Depressing in my opinion.

But in my day, we did have our own counting out games (although I didn't know they were called that). A few of them were:

One potato, two potato,
Three potato, four
Five potato, six potato,
Seven potato, more.

Enny, meny, minny mo
Catch a monkey by the toe
If he hollers make him pay
Fifteen dollars every day
You old dirty dishrag out goes YOU.

One for the money
Two for the show
Three to get ready
Four to go.

The following are not counting-out rhymes, but little games we played. Do children say these things and play these games anymore?

Ring around the roses
Pocket full of posies
Upstairs, downstairs, squat!

London Bridge is falling down, falling down
London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady.

Pease parge (porridge) hot
Pease parge cold
Pease parge in the pot nine days old
Some like it hot
Some like it cold
Some like it in the days nine days old.

Lucy Lockett lost her pocket
And don’t know where to find it
Katy Fisher found it
Not a penny was there in it.

Mary Mac
Dressed in black
Silver buttons up and down her back.

Oh, then there's this little song:

Short'nin' Bread

Put on the pot, then we'll be fed,
Mama's gonna make a little short'nin' bread.
That ain't all she's gonna do,
Mama's gonna make a little coffee, too.

Mama's little baby loves short'nin', short'nin',
Mama's little baby loves short'nin' bread,
Mama's little baby loves short'nin', short'nin',
Mama's little baby loves short'nin' bread.

Thank you for reading this far of this very long post and thereby indulging me to discuss this topic. I hope you haven't found it too boring. But I would very much like your thoughts on any of the above discussion.

Specifically, I'd be interested to know if you've heard of any of the counting-out rhymes. Did you say them? Did you teach any of them to your children/grandchildren? If you have have young children/grandchildren, do they have counting-out rhymes, and if so, what are they? I am totally out of touch on current trends so please educate me!


  1. You really did lots of research for this post. Being a Finn, I only remember that London bridge one, and naturally Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall...
    I had some English story books as a child.
    We have something similar in Finnish too, only I did not hear them at home.
    We ( kids ) played games, which had rhymes and then there were books full of them.
    Did I tell/ amuse my daughters with them? Perhaps I repeated some few, perhaps only few. Not having grandchildren, I don´t know, what´s to happen.
    You are so right about all of these cute rhymes being much history these days.
    Parents indeed tend to be so busy all the time. There are must-attend hobbies which children attend, and parents are all worn out after a work day. Relatives often live far away, and younger grandparents wish to have their own hobbies and travel.
    The oldies need help themselves.
    The world has changed.

    1. I remember what pretty old-fashioned pictures those nursery rhyme books had; very Victorian. Thanks or the information provided about how it worked with you and your daughters. Perhaps I'm being too nostalgic, thinking these should continue because they were so important to me. Now, there are other things that the younger set think are important. Who knows who is right? Yes, the world has changed.

  2. Goodness, you started my mind whirling. Not familiar with the first group you posted but all the others I know. There is some kind of slap hands game that goes with Mary Mack isn't there? And what about "Oly,oly, oxen free"? I probably spelled it wrong.

    When the GD was young we said many of these and lots of jump rope rhymes too. We played game after game of Old Maid and War. Still pull out the deck of cards and play war if we are stuck waiting somewhere like an airport. Monopoly later became the game of choice - set out on a card table at the cabin and the games lasted days.

    I'm sure little jingles will be going through my head the rest of the day.

    What fun and great memories.


    1. Ha-Ha Darla. You sound exactly like me -- get your mind on something and can't let go! The Mary Mack game was clapping with hands, played by two people. You mention Oly, oly, oxen free. I can tell you that I am not at all familiar with that, except for Rod McKuen's recording of a song by that title in late '60s. But I did look it up and learned what game it refers to. Sounds as if you did an excellent job of spending time with your GD. I'm sure it's something she will cherish forever. Please share any other jingles that go through your head!

  3. So sad all these old things are dying away and have been replaced by computers, as well as all the other high technology things. We had to entertain ourselves and find things to make and do. We drew on the ground, played hop scotch, made roads (with a hoe) leading to our playhouse that was furnished with broken household items; made mud pies; decorated our playhouse with bouquets of "ditch lillies". We were worn out at tne end of the day when we build the playhouses.
    Thanks for the memories!

  4. What fun to remember our building playhouses days. We allowed our imaginations to run wild and we entertained ourselves the entire day, as you said. What a treat it was to build playhouses at Becky B.'s house, where we got to use real Jello instead of mud to make our pies! I think we are better for having had the experiences we did.

  5. Remember London Bridge,Ring O roses played at parties for children,my daughter enjoyed the falling down part I remember,used to play Pat a Cake with her,plus Insie Whinsie (sorry about the spelling!) spider climbing up the spout we loved doing the movements to this...oh happy days,loads more that I have forgotten.

    Friends with G/children still do the nursery rhymes with them.
    Do you remember those beautiful pop up books with the gorgeous illustrations of the rhymes? Ida

    1. Hi Ida, fun to remember those isn't it? I am not familiar with Whinsie, but seems I remember "The ensy bitsy spider climbed up the spider web," but yours may be different. I do remember those books you mention. So nice.

  6. Kids still count out with the Eenie, Meenie, Mynie, Moe (however you spell it?) My favorite things to chant were the Child's Garden of Verses, specifically "How Do You Like To Go Up In A Swing?". It still runs through my head whenever I am swinging or pushing a child in a swing. There are lots of jump rope rhymes, too.

    1. Hmm, don't remember the swing one. Am sure all childrens' varied somewhat. I can't remember the jump rope rhymes. One that just went through my head is, "One, two, buckle my shoe, three, four, shut the door," etc. What did we use that one for??


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