Words & Stuff

BBB: Lucy, Suzy, and Mary Mack

(16 January 2000)

A while back, I mentioned a jump-rope or ball-bouncing chant in which you make up words starting with a given letter: "A, my name is Alice and my husband's name is Al; we come from Alabama and we sell aardvarks." Ever since then I've been wanting to discuss jump-rope rhymes, counting-out rhymes, and clapping-pattern rhymes, but I didn't have enough material until a recent discussion on a mailing list provided a flood of it.

There are a whole bunch of categories of rhythmic and/or rhyming schoolyard folklore, including:

One thing that many such rhymes have in common is a very strong rhythm, to the point of having a sing-songy intonation, often with the stressed syllables being the ones on which an action takes place.

Here are some examples of schoolyard rhymes, starting with a brief look at counting-out rhymes. The archetypal such item in America goes:

Eeny, meeny, miney, mo.
Catch a tiger by the toe.
If he hollers, let him go.
Eeny, meeny, miney, mo.

The person doing the counting points to each of the participants in turn, pointing to a new person with each stressed syllable. The last person pointed to is often It. However, there are a host of variations on this process. In particular, there are versions in which the one the rhyme ends on is out, and the process is repeated with those remaining, until the last person left becomes It. In some versions, the choosing is explicit in the words; after the above rhyme, further words are added, such as:

My mother says to pick this very one.

where the last one pointed to is It. That can be taken even further by adding "...and you are not It." That too can be extended, as in a version remembered by Joe Robins, in which one can add "The colors of the flag are red, white, and blue," and can optionally add a further "and white and blue" to obtain a more satisfactory choice.

There are zillions of jump-rope rhymes. Possibly the best-known is this:

Cinderella
dressed in yella
went upstairs to kiss a fella.
Made a mistake
and kissed a snake.
How many doctors did it take?

And then you count until the person jumping makes a mistake. Another kind of jump-rope rhyme provides specific actions for each line:

Teddy bear, teddy bear turn around.
Teddy bear, teddy bear touch the ground.
Teddy bear, teddy bear do the splits.
Teddy bear, teddy bear do high kicks.
Teddy bear, teddy bear show your shoes.
Teddy bear, teddy bear that will do.
Teddy bear, teddy bear go upstairs.
Teddy bear, teddy bear say your prayers.
Teddy bear, teddy bear turn out the light.
Teddy bear, teddy bear say good night.

The two most common clapping-pattern rhymes known by my correspondents are various versions of these:

Oh little playmate
Come out and play with me
And bring your dollies three
Climb up my apple tree
Slide down my rainspout [or rainbow, or rain barrel]
Into my cellar door
And we'll be jolly friends [or jolly playmates, or happy friends, or best of friends]
Forever more.

I'm sorry, playmate.
I cannot play with you.
My dollies have the flu.
One hundred ninety-two. [or Boo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo]
I have no rainspout.
I have no cellar door.
But we'll be jolly friends
Forever more.

Oh little enemy,
Come out and fight with me
And bring your monsters three [or dragons, or soldiers, or bulldogs]
Climb up my pricker tree. [or poison, or thorn]
Slide down my storm barrel [or razor blade]
Into my dungeon door
And we'll be jolly enemies
Forever more.

[Plus a fourth verse corresponding to the third.]

and:

Miss Lucy had a baby
She called him Tiny Tim
She put him in the bathtub
To see if he could swim.

He drank up all the water
He ate up all the soap
He tried to eat the bathtub
But it wouldn't fit down his throat.

Miss Lucy called the doctor
The doctor called the nurse
The nurse called the lady
With the alligator purse.

In came the doctor
In came the nurse
Out came the lady
With the alligator purse.

"Measles," said the doctor,
"Mumps," said the nurse,
"Nothing," said the lady
With the alligator purse.

Out came the water
Out came the soap
Out came the bathtub
That wouldn't fit down his throat.

Out went the doctor
Out went the nurse
Out went the lady
With the alligator purse.

This stuff is all folklore, of course; there's bound to be regional and individual variation (stemming from mis-hearing, intentional changes, local references, and so on). I'd love to do a full-scale ethnographic study of such rhymes all over the world and see what the regional and chronological variations are like. (And to what degree the tunes and/or gestures and/or clapping patterns are different from place to place.) I've been sent a couple of non-English playground rhymes but didn't have space for them in this column.

There are plenty of other schoolyard rhymes and chants and songs and games, but I'll have to save discussion of those for another column. In the mean time, there's at least one extensive book of such rhymes, illustrated by Maurice Sendak.


Thanks to Heather Weidner, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Joe Robins, Jeremy Dilatush, Kyla Tornheim, Melissa Binde, and Sarah Bergstrom for providing the rhymes for this column.

Reader comments and addenda page


Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>