Counting-out game

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A counting-out game is a simple game intended to select a person to be "it", often for the purpose of playing another game. These games usually require no materials, and are played with spoken words (counting rhymes) or hand gestures. The historian Henry Carrington Bolton suggested in his 1888 book "Counting Out Rhymes of Children" that the custom of counting out originated in the "superstitious practice of divination by lot."[1][page needed]

Many such games involve one person pointing at each participant in a circle of players while reciting a rhyme. A new person is pointed at as each word is said. The player who is selected at the conclusion of the rhyme is "it" or "out". In an alternate version, the circle of players may each put two feet in and at the conclusion of the rhyme, that player removes one foot and the rhyme starts over with the next person. In this case, the first player that has both feet removed is "it" or "out". In theory a counting rhyme is determined entirely by the starting selection (and would result in a modulo operation), but in practice they are often accepted as random selections because the number of words has not been calculated beforehand, so the result is unknown until someone is selected.[2][page needed]

A variant of counting-out game, known as the Josephus problem, represents a famous theoretical problem in mathematics and computer science.


Several simple games can be played to select one person from a group, either as a straightforward winner, or as someone who is eliminated. Rock, Paper, Scissors, Odd or Even and Blue Shoe require no materials and are played using hand gestures, although with the former it is possible for a player to win or lose through skill rather than luck. Coin flipping and drawing straws are fair methods of randomly determining a player. Bizz Buzz is a spoken word game where if a player slips up and speaks a word out of sequence, they are eliminated.

Common rhymes[edit]

(These rhymes may have many local or regional variants.)

In popular culture[edit]

A scene in the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup plays on the fact that counting-out games are not really random. Faced with selecting someone to go on a dangerous mission, the character Chicolini (Chico Marx) chants:

Rrringspot, vonza, twoza, zig-zag-zav, popti, vinaga, harem, scarem, merchan, tarem, teir, tore...

only to stop as he realizes he is about to select himself. He then says, "I did it wrong. Wait, wait, I start here", and repeats the chant—with the same result. After that, he says, "That's no good too. I got it!" and reduces the chant to

Rrringspot, buck!

And with this version he finally manages to "randomly" select someone else.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bolton, Henry Carrington (1888). Counting Out Rhymes of Children. Elliot Stock. [ISBN unspecified].
  2. ^ Opie, I & P (1989). Children's Games in Street and Playground. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9781782500322. Fanciful as it would seem to someone who had never been a child, the normal way the young decide who is to have the unpopular part in a game is to form the players up in a line or circle, and count along the line the number of counts prescribed by the accented syllables of some little rhyme.
  3. ^ Macaulay, Ronald (2006). The Social Art: Language and Its Uses. Oxford University Press. p. 189. ISBN 0-19-518796-2.
  4. ^ "Transcript of Duck Soup".

External links[edit]