Linguist, lexicographer, radio host, public speaker

The lore and rhymes of children

This is my latest column in the Malaysia Star. Thanks to cousin Kirk Gadberry, whose query about “chinny chin chin” gave me the idea of talking about the lore of children. We’ll be talking more about counting rhymes and such on an upcoming episode of the radio show, now carried in many more markets across the country and available by podcast, too.

My son is two and we are well beyond the “peek-a-boo” stage (also called “peep-eye”, “peepo” or “beebo” in some places), so I spend a good deal of time telling him stories.

Books we have by the dozens, but every once in a while I like to tell him a story off the top of my head – from my own imagination – such as how the monkey family gave him to us because he didn’t have tail or fur (not true; the monkey part, I mean – he indeed does not have a tail or fur).

Harder to recall are the fairy tales, those stories passed from ear to mouth over the generations. I can recollect only bits and pieces of rhymes, songs, and stories I knew as a child.

I do recall most of ‘The Three Little Pigs’. There are three pigs, and a wolf who is trying to get inside their houses, and in response to his demands, the pigs say the memorable phrase, “Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin.”

This is partly a nonsense phrase, of course. That jutting feature of the face just below the mouth doesn’t need the “chinny chin”. So why do we add the extra words?

Well, in a version of the story that predates the version we usually tell today, the pigs were goats. Although pigs do have whiskers of a sort, goats have beards, which makes more sense.

The wolf would say something like “Let me in!” and the goats would reply, “Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin!”

The extra syllables were added to “chin” to make “chinny chin chin” in order to rhyme with the right rhythm and meter.

Other mysterious language of childhood includes what are called “counting rhymes”. When it comes time to play a game, somebody has to go first. Children try to keep each other fair, so you must “count off” (point at each person in turn until you reach the end).

One counting rhyme we used when I was a boy was:

One potato, two potato, three potato, four.
Five potato, six potato, seven potato, ore.

The potatoes are there to give it the proper counting rhythm. Every time you say a number and a potato, you point to a person.

The “ore” is probably from an old-fashioned pronunciation of “over”, which means that if the count lands on you when it’s said, then you are counted out. Then the rhyme is done again and the last person left is “it”.

Being “it” is a prime honour. It means you are the one who controls the game play and, probably, has the most fun. “It” is the person who chases everyone else when playing tag, “it” is the person who covers their eyes while everyone else hides in the game ‘hide and seek’, and “it” is the person who gives the orders in the game ‘Mother May I’ which is all about following instructions.

There are also a variety of counting rhymes that begin “eeny, meany, miney, moe” and are followed by any number of verses, some of them off-colour (meaning, racist or prejudiced), so I won’t repeat them here. Given that these are generally transmitted between children, the values and mores (the basic customs of a community; pronounced “MORE-ayze”) of parents don’t necessarily come into play.

There are also rhymes for teaching the numbers and their order. The one that most people know is “One, two, buckle my shoe; three, four, open the door” and so on. Then there’s this one – no longer in use, as far as I can tell – recorded in 1798 which is part of a set of rhymes meant to teach multiplication tables:

So 5 times 8 were 40 Scots,
Who came from Aberdeen,
And 5 times 9 were 45,
Which gave them all the spleen.

“To give someone the spleen” is an archaic expression which means “to make someone angry”.

There are also childhood superstitions that my son won’t learn from me. He’ll probably learn them from his friends.

One is “step on a crack, break your mother’s back”. This is something you say as you walk on the pavement and it causes a great deal of hopping and skipping as you try to avoid the cracks.

And when my son gets older, there will no doubt be punching games. These are, basically, excuses for young boys to hit each other. One common one was called “the eye” when we were growing up, but that’s just one of many names.

A boy will make the “okay” sign with his hand – the thumb and index finger forming a circle – and he’ll rest it on his leg. The first person to see it gets punched in the arm or leg. Juvenile and childish, but that’s boys for you.

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Grant Barrett