out goes y-o-u
“Children playing out-door games such as “Hide and Seek” and “I Spy,” in which one of their number has to take an undesirable part, adopt a method of determining who shall bear the burden which involves the principle of casting lots, but differs in manner of execution. It is usually conducted as follows:–A leader, generally self-appointed, having secured the attention of the boys and girls about to join in the proposed game, arranges them in a row, or in a circle around him, as fancy may dictate. He (or she) then repeats a peculiar doggerel, sometimes with a rapidity which can only be acquired by great familiarity and a dexterous tongue, and pointing with the hand or forefinger to each child in succession, not forgetting himself (or herself), allots to each one word of the mysterious formula:–

One-ery, two-ery, ickery, Ann,
Fillicy, fallacy, Nicholas, John,
Queever, quaver, English, knaver,
Stinckelum, stanckelum, Jericho, buck.

This example contains sixteen words; if there is a greater number of children, a longer verse is used, but generally the number of words is greater than the number of children, so that the leader begins the round of the group a second time, and mayhap a third time, giving each child one word of the doggerel. Having completed the verse or sentence, the child on whom the last word falls is said to be “out,” and steps aside. In repeating the above doggerel the accent falls on the first syllable of each polysyllabic word; a very common ending is:–

One, two, three,
Out goes she! (or he),

and the last word is generally said with great emphasis, or shouted.” [Henry Carrington Bolton, The Counting-Out Rhymes of Children: Their Antiquity, Origin, and Wide Distribution (1888).]
Sound familiar? Probably not the particular “mysterious formula” quoted by Mr. Bolton, but the ritual of counting out and many of its performative characteristics are surely familiar to anybody who wasn’t raised by wolves as an only child in the wilderness:

  • The group of participants is ordered, that is, somebody is first, somebody else second, and so on to the nth participant—and the number of people to be counted out is agreed on (typically, everybody but a lone survivor, though not always).
  • The vehicle for the counting out is a short metrical, stress-based, spoken text, which may contain apparent nonsense words reminiscent of the “magic” words of an incantation and whose practical function is to act as phonetic filler in support of the requirements of the meter. In some cases, what is now nonsense may have started out as congruent speech that has lost its meaning through a combination of misperception and semantic bleaching (as with the formation of mondegreens like “Round John Virgin” or the distortions of the children’s game of telephone). As for the meter, Andy Arleo plausibly offers in his “Counting-Out and the Search for Universals” (Journal of American Folklore, vol. 110 [1997]) “two possible versions of a hypothesis of metrical symmetry for children’s rhymes: Children’s rhymes tend towards symmetry, defined as follows: (1) The number of beats in a given metrical unit (hemistich, line, stanza) tends to be even. (2) The number of beats in a given metrical unit tends to be a power of two.”
  • The text is repeated until the desired number of participants has been counted out, each time starting with the person next to the one just eliminated.
  • That the elimination of participants is determined by chance is typically an innocent fiction (since, if the counting-out text is invariant, determining who gets counted out is a simple matter of modulo arithmetic).

Whether or not it’s desirable to be the survivor(s) of the counting out process depends on circumstances. Claude Gaspard Bachet in his Problèmes plaisants et délectables [(5th ed., 1884)] gives two classic examples of what Elliott Oring refers to (in his “On the Tradition and Mathematics of Counting Out” [Western Folklore, vol. 56 no 2 (1997)]) as “the survivalist approach to counting-out:” the Josephus problem, and the problem of the fifteen Christians and fifteen Turks. In his third-person account of the war against the Roman emperor Vespasian, De Bello Judaico [http://www.ccel.org/j/josephus/works/war-3.htm], the general Josephus recounts having to hide with forty of his companions in a cave. As their rations grew short, it was decided that they would kill each other down to the last man. In Josephus’s telling, who got to be killed was determined by lot, a process that he survived either “whether we must say that it happened so by chance, or whether by the providence of God.” Bachet’s spin on the story involved the thought experiment of counting out the 41 people in the cave by threes until everybody except the lucky person #31 is dead. (The student is left to work out the math by him- or herself.) The other problem involves fifteen Christians and fifteen Turks on a boat that will sink unless half of the thirty jump over board. Bachet works through the problem by hand and then provides a mnemonic for the order in which the Christians and Turks have to be arranged in order to have just the Turks, counting out by nines, wind up being “it:” Assigning the vowels a, e, i, o, and u the values 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, the vowels in the following somewhat literary couplet tell you how to arrange the players, starting with the Christians:

Mort, tu ne falliras pas
En me livrant le trépas!

[Death, you won’t fail
to spare my demise.]

or, CCCC TTTTT CC T CCC T C TT CC TTT C TT CC T. How you’re supposed to get the Christians and Turks to line up according to what you’ve calculated to be the order in which the former will be spared and the latter consigned to the sea and certain death is not clear.

In real life (as opposed to a thought experiment), it takes a pretty manipulative counter-outer and a group of pretty naïve kids to get everybody into the right order so that a fix will work while the appearance of fairness—chance—is maintained. Failing that, the counter-outer has a number of strategies to adjust the outcome of the counting out. Besides the fairly lame strategy of the counter-outer’s skipping himself (or herself) in one or more rounds, the text itself may offer some leeway, as when there is additional text that may be added to the canonical rhyme to alter the outcome of the count. For example,
here’s the canonical form of a comptine (counting-out rhyme) popular in Québec:

Un, deux, trois, quat’
Ma p’tit’ vache a mal aux pattes.
Tirons-la par la queue,
Elle deviendra mieux.

[One, two, three, four
My little cow’s feet ache.
Pull her by the tail,
She’ll get better.]

to which may be added dans un jour ou deux [‘in a day or two’] to which may additionally be appended bleu, blanc, rouge! [‘blue, white, red’] if so desired. Whether the counter-outer can get away with adding one or both of these tags inconsistently, i.e., only where necessary to assure a given outcome, is not clear. One suspects that the allowable tags to the Anglophonic classic—Eeny, meeny, miny, mo—provide somewhat more flexability:

Eeny, meeny, miny, mo,
Catch a tiger by the toe;
If he hollers, let him go:
Out goes Y-O-U.

where the final line may be replaced by a repetition of the first (“Eeny, meeny, miny, mo”) followed by additional text, possibly extemporized, beginning with the conventional “My mother told me to…,” (e.g., “Mý móther tóld mé tó chóose thé véry bést óne, ánd yóu áre nót ít”), delivered with the proper word stress and concomitant finger pointing. If the tag is sufficiently discursive, variation on the next round will probably go unnoticed.