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Out goes you!

Q: I teach ESL to very smart students who have amazing questions. This one stumped me. Shouldn’t the inverted verb be “go,” not “goes,” in this poem? Acca bacca soda cracker, / Acca bacca boo. / Acca bacca soda cracker, / Out goes you!

A: Yes, grammatical correctness would require “Out go you!” But one doesn’t expect proper grammar in playground rhymes, with their nonsense words and quirky syntax. On the playground, grammar is never as important as rhythm and onomatopoeia.

But was “goes” ever the second-person singular of “go” in English? If so, the usage could be a relic from the past.

Well, we couldn’t find this use of “goes” in the Oxford English Dictionary, but the second-person singular was sometimes spelled “gose” in Middle English.

Here’s a 15th-century example from The Towneley Plays, a manuscript named for the family that once owned it: “Who owe this child thou gose withall?”

Nevertheless, we see no evidence of an etymological connection between that 15th-century spelling and the 19th-century children’s doggerel you’ve asked about.

The poem is typical of what are called children’s counting-out rhymes. These frequently end in three emphatically stressed words: “out goes you.”

Children chant such rhymes in order to select a player who’s “counted out” or selected to be “it”—for instance, in a game of tag or hide-and-seek. 

 We found many similar poems in a book called The Counting-Out Rhymes of Children (1888), by Henry Carrington Bolton. A pair of examples:

Acker, backer, soda cracker,
Half-past two.
A pinch of snuff,
That is enough,
Out goes you!

Hackabacker, chew tobacco,
Hackabacker chew;
Hackabacker, eat a cracker.
Out goes you!

Other versions, found in this book and elsewhere, end in variations on this theme, typically with “O-U-T spells out goes you” or “One, two, three, and out goes you.”

Very rarely does one find “out go you.” And we can see why. The punchy “z” sound in “Out goes you” is phonetically pleasing amid all those vowel sounds. In other words, it’s more fun to say—or yell.

Besides, “out goes you” is easily adaptable to substitution—“out goes Jack,” “out goes Mary,” and so on.

Such counting-out rhymes are common among children throughout the world, and according to scholars they make no more sense in French or Russian or Czech than they do in English. But let’s get back to English.

In a study entitled “Children’s Traditional Speech Play and Child Language” (1976), Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett and Mary Sanches quote one such rhyme, which they characterize as “gibberish”:

Inty, ninty, tibbety fig
Deema dima doma nig
Howchy powchy domi nowday
Hom tom tout
Olligo bolligo boo
Out goes you.

In children’s poetry, the authors write, sound is what counts, not grammar or syntax or sense: “only the phonological rules are observed: the phonological sequences neither form units which have grammatical function nor lexemes with semantic reference.”

“That children enjoy playing with sound for its own sake has long been recognized as a prominent feature of child speech,” they add.

In short, the words that kids chant on the playground aren’t about grammar—they’re about sound. Put ’em together and what have you got? Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo!

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