Expert Opinion: Eeny meeny miney mo...

Posted by ap507 at May 02, 2014 04:17 PM |
Professor Julie Coleman, Head of the School of English at the University of Leicester, comments on the controversy over allegedly ‘racist rhyme’
Expert Opinion: Eeny meeny miney mo...

Professor Julie Coleman

Background info via BBC links here and here.

Eeny meeny miney mo...

The next line is the difficult one. Once the N-word became unacceptable (of course, it always was, but it has become much more unacceptable to many more people), various alternatives were introduced. I’ve heard tiggers, tigers and babies being caught by the toe. Jeremy Clarkson claims that in his version it was a teacher who was being victimized by the toe-catchers. Is that ok?

As this controversy demonstrates, nursery rhymes can encapsulate ideas and words that are no longer acceptable. In this, they are like almost all texts, written or spoken, that have been handed down to us from earlier generations of English-speakers. We may be shocked, in varying degrees, by the racism, sexism, homophobia and mistreatment of children that are manifest in texts from the recent and distant past, but those same racist, sexist, homophobic child-abusers might be profoundly offended by what they would see as our blasphemy and tolerance of immorality and obscenity. Values change -- if they don’t it means that no-one is questioning them.

As to nursery rhymes, of course we can find things to be offended in them. Babies really shouldn’t be left unattended in trees. There is no time of day at which it is appropriate to whip hungry children, soundly or otherwise. Some children will find some rhymes particularly disturbing (Humpty Dumpty anyone?) and adults will tend to avoid the ones that they or their children don’t like. Gradually the rhymes that aren’t in keeping with contemporary values will fall from use or be modified into a more acceptable form. If the mutilation of partially sighted mice, or the colour of sheep, or the use of any form of Eeny Meeny genuinely do cause offence then, one offender at a time, we will acknowledge our mistake, apologise profusely and mend our ways.

This controversy isn’t about nursery rhymes, it’s about tabooed language. It provides an important lesson on how the social meanings of words and phrases can change – the N-word is offensive on many levels, particularly when white people use it.  I haven’t heard anyone arguing otherwise recently.  It is right that we should continue to challenge and interrogate the use of language, though – this is how we challenge and develop our own and other people’s value-systems.

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