counting seconds

Layah wrote to me about a year ago with this question:
In America when you are trying to time counting seconds you often say Mississippi in between each number: "One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi..." Do they have something like that in England?
When Layah wrote to me,  I took the matter to Twitter, asking people to let me know what they use. And so if this post seems like a repeat, you may have read about this already. I was surprised to learn that I hadn't blogged it at the time. So, here it is!

In my American growing-up, there were two ways we did such counting -- very useful when playing hide-and-seek. One was one Mississippi, two Mississippi; the other was one one-thousand, two one-thousand... And other Americans may use other things, but Mississippi is indeed  widespread.

The British also have one one-thousand, but lots of others. The most common ones among(st) my Twitter correspondents were one elephant, two elephant and one Piccadilly, two Piccadilly. Many others were offered, including lots of other animals: chimpanzee, hippopotamus, crocodile.

This is the kind of informal, playground thing that is subject to lots of creativity and variation. You're welcome to offer yours in the comments--but please remember to say where you're from!


  1. I say One - Mrs Freakly, Two - Mrs Freakly, etc.

    Mrs Freakly was our PE teacher at primary school and she taught us how to count seconds while holding a netball (you have to pass within three seconds). It stuck.

    But oddly, though I'm from the UK, I've heard Mississippi being used but none of your other suggestions.

  2. Thousand and one, thousand and two,... I think I picked this up from a story or article rather than anyone else local.
    UK Yorkshire.

  3. For me (Brit, living in the U.S.), the cultural norm would be to use "thousand".

    It might well have existed before - maybe regionally? - but I think the use of "elephant" might have been popularised by a scene in _Gregory's Girl_, in which it's used to time developing in a photopgraphc dark room. It's certainly presented in the film as a novel usage.

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  5. I was taught "one Mississippi" etc. even in England (this was at secondary/high school in the late 80s).

    This could be my bias, but "Mississippi" just seems to work better than the others.

  6. Down in Australia I learnt "one cat and dog, two cat and dog..."

    The second version I remember hearing is yet another permutation of the thousands. People would count "One thousand and one, one thousand and two...".

    Unsurprisingly never heard the Mississippi version at all.

  7. What a fun topic! I'm from the U.S. and the only one I would add is "alligator," which is similar to "crocodile". "Piccadilly" is great -- I think I might start using it!

  8. The only one I can think of that hasn't been mentioned yet is "one apple, two apple..."

    Admittedly, I think the only time I've used this is when playing the schoolyard two-hand-touch version of American football. You had to count out loud to ten apple before rushing the quarterback.

  9. This is like the traditional timing routine for naval gun salutes: "If I weren't a gunner I wouldn't be here, number (one, two, three, etc.) starboard/port, fire!"

  10. I grew up in South Africa, and we used both "Mississippi" and "hippopotamus". I guess Mississippi made it across the ocean because it's a pretty fun word to say. I've also used "one (two three four), two (two three four), etc".

    I've been in Australia for about 15 years now, but I don't know of any distinctly Australian counting methods. I guess if we're going for fun place names we could use Woolloomooloo :P

  11. I'm remembering an episode of Lost where one character counts out seconds in "sugarplum fairies", but I honestly can't remember which part of the English-speaking world that character is from!

  12. I grew up in Scotland and have always used one (and a half), two (and a half), etc. Can't remember whether I learned this at school or picked it up from my father.

  13. I (BrE, Southern)) was taught one-one thousand, two-one thousand etc, but a NZ friend uses "one big elephant, two big elephants", which I have adopted as "one pink elephant, two pink elephants".

  14. I cannot recall any such 'incantation' from my childhood and I don't think I've ever heard any of the variants (UK, US etc) - maybe my upbringing was very different from others, but I just recall counting seconds off by counting one .. two .. three etc and I see no need to change this now :)

    (British - now splits time between UK and Spain, but have lived in 11 or so countries around the world)

  15. The most common use of this counting method in my youth (and the word was either "thousand" or "umbrella" — pronounced "umberella") was to time the gap between thunder and lightning, to see whether the storm was coming closer or if I could stop being petrified.

  16. My husband (English) objected the other day when I was counting something off "One Mississippi..." so I switched to "One Mr. Kipling." He seemed satisfied.

    (From the American South now living in Hertfordshire)

  17. I'm originally from the English Midlands and now live in Edinburgh.

    I don't remember any "childhood incantation" of this sort.

    I learned the "one thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand, check canopy" mantra when training for my first (static line) parachute jump when I was eighteen (the airfield was in Lincolnshire if that makes any difference).

    I'm aware of "one Mississippi, two Mississippi" from US TV programmes.

    I wasn't aware of "Umbrellas", "Alligators", "Elephants" etc until I read this blog entry.

  18. One-and-a-hundred, two-and-a-hundred, ...

    I remember picking it up from Raymond Baxter using it on Tomorrow's World.

  19. My Dublin dad taught me "thousand and one, thousand and two, ..." but lately seems himself to have switched to "one one thousand, two one thousand, ..."

    I remember an episode of [some sitcom... Googles...] "Alice" where characters argue over whether "Mississippi" or "chimpanzee" is the canonical word. I have since noticed "Mississippi" on other US TV shows and am not surprised it has spread.

  20. US- Mississippi. Never used thousand, never even heard it.
    But I LOVE Piccadilly! Has the same feel as Mississippi

  21. One-butterfly, two-butterfly, etc for me.

    Brit living in the UK - though as a kid in the 60s I lived in Beirut and we got a fair few US tv programmes, cartoons and comic books, and a lot of Americans about the place.

    From one of those cartoons I still remember being told how to spell Mississippi through some kind of song with a bouncing ball -


    But that's it for Mississippi in my youth; I don't often have call to spell it.

  22. Like PaulAtNorthGare, I immediately thought of Gregory's Girl. There's a lovely two-part delayed gag:

    1. Watch Gregory in the photo lab. The scene starts at about 06:10/14:02 — or you can go straight to the elephant bit at about 07:35/14.02.
    2. Watch the start of this scene.

    To fill in the background:

    a. The opening scene explains what they're talking about in [2].
    b. This changing room scene explains the photograph being developed in [1]. Start from about 00:40/14:43.

  23. When I'm counting two seconds to ensure I am a decent distance from the car in front on the freeway I always quote that old Public Information Film (US 'Public Service Announcement') from the seventies "Only a fool breaks the two second rule!" whereas my American wife says "One Mississippi, Two Mississippi" instead:

  24. "one two three one, one two three two" is what comes to my American mind. A Google search suggests a strong association with exercise.

  25. I used "elephant" when I was younger, but most other children at my school used "one thousand".
    I have heard of the "mississippi" one as well, but I am not sure if that is from TV shows.

    I was at school throughout the 90s, in the south of England (Reading), but am the daughter of a SW Scottish mum and a Brummie dad.

  26. Regarding the character in 'Lost' who used 'sugar plum fairy'; he (or at least the writer) may have been a Beatles fan. It was the phrase that John Lennon used to establish the tempo on the original demo for 'A Day In The Life'.
    It can be heard here:

  27. Thiers Halliwell04 April, 2012 10:10

    As a youngster in NZ I learned to use one-a-b, two-a-b, three-a-b, etc. for estimating the time when processing prints in a photographic darkroom, and have used the method throughout my life.


  28. I see another US participant mentioned using one-alligator. I recall well the hyperventilated comment from Jim Valvano in 1993 when his NC State University team won the national championship on an unbelievable last second shot. He said, just after the final horn sounded, that as the final seconds ticked away that he "was counting alligators".

  29. Nerd joke (not mine, sadly): you can count out time by saying one picosecond, two picoseconds, three picoseconds...

  30. The first one I learned, I learned from watching my father play American football in a Sunday league: instead of tackling the quarterback, they had to count "steamboats":

    One steamboat, two steamboat...

    Can't remember how many they had to count, but I remember my Dad's voice shouting it out as the plays went on.

  31. Like the other Australians, I still say 'one cat'n'dog', etc. And like Picky I mainly use it for counting the pause between lightning and thunder to estimate how far away the storm is.

  32. I use elephants, but I remember when I was young, learning "Halifax".

    And for a different joke, we were learning the difference between jig (3/4) and reel time (4/4), and our Highland teacher explained that it was a reel if it matched the syllables in Edinburgh. After total failure to discern reels, she had to change the place to Piccadilly.

    Rachel (Oxford, UK)

  33. I'm English and I have only ever heard of the Mississippi one. I've never heard of any of the others before at all.

  34. I count kangaroos (NW England). Don't know where I got it from as I'm fairly sure my parents count thousands.

    I learnt to spell Mississippi (at speed) from something on TV.
    M - I
    Double S - I
    Double S - I
    Double P - I

  35. Do you actually say 'double S' rather than 'S S', Sarah? That would be SUCH a British thing to do with such an American name!

  36. Spelling with DOUBLE must have been common somewhere in America in the twenties, judging by the variants of a blues 'floating' verse.

    The one I almost remembered was:

    Got a new way baby : spelling Memphis Tennessee
    Double M double E : double T double X Y Z

    Fortunately, I was able to get the exact wording by looking up SPELLING in Michael Taft's rather wonderful Pre-war Blues Lyrics Concordance.

    There are five recordings each with a different variant spelling — the least plausible being:

    My gal's got a new way : Lord spelling Tennessee
    Double S double E : double I double A double L
    . The other four do rhyme.

  37. Growing up in Norfolk, England, but with a mum from Cheshire, I learnt the elephant one but in a slightly different form - one pink elephant, two pink elephants, three pink elephants etc etc.

  38. An American, I grew up counting both Mississippis and thousands; we learned to spell the former as
    crooked letter, crooked letter, I
    crooked letter, crooked letter, I
    humpback, humpback, I

  39. Yes, I would say "Double S", and I'm sure it was a US tv show or film.

    Pink elephants ring a bell with me too, but I wouldn't say it myself.

    1. It's from a song by Bobbie Gentry called Mississippi Delta from the late 1960s

  40. Not funny at all, but my father, a navigator in the British navy in WW2, learnt to count seconds as: "I think that's one, I think that's", etc.

    (Well, I don't think it's funny.)

  41. Love Piccadilly, but have never heard about it! Aways used Mississippi, wondering what they might use in Austraia, India or South-Africa ; )

  42. Going off on a tangent here. I'm French. At primary school we used to have a skipping song involving counting "un Mississippi, deux Mississippi, trois Mississipi" and so on. It was 25 years ago. I didn't realise what it was about until someone told me it was a way to count seconds. I have no idea how it came to a small village in the French countryside, though.

  43. In Polish we use "tysiÄ…c" which is a simple translation of "thousand". I guess it came from English as a calque.

  44. In Holland we use 'een en twintig, twee en twintig'... which means simply 'twenty one, twenty two', so when counting seconds we tend to start at 21 rather than at 1...

  45. On reading your blog, I was reminded of children's counting rhymes in particular 'One potato, two potato, three potato, four ...'. As an Englishman I have always assumed that this example was specifically English. Is there a different American version? There is a selection of these in more than one language on Wkipedia under the heading 'Counting-out games'.

  46. I know 'one potato, two potato' from my US childhood.

  47. Sarah, was it Annie? There's a scene near the start when she's hiding behind a door at the orphanage trying to prove how adoptable she is and when she hears that the billionaire is looking for an intelligent child she says Em Aye Double Ess Aye Double Ess Aye Double Pee Aye.

    That scene is both how I learned to spell Mississippi and why I assumed saying double for a repeat letter was standard usage.

    The other mnemonic listed upthread sounds to me like the theme tune to The Mickey Mouse Club, to me.

  48. I'm from Idaho, and I usually say one potato, two potato, etc. I don't know where I picked it up, but I didn't make it up. It seems kind of funny now that I think about it because I'm from Idaho, which is famous for its potatoes. I also use Mississippi sometimes.

  49. There is a rhyme that starts out 'one potato, two potato'. Not about counting seconds, but maybe that's how you picked it up.

    One potato, two potato,
    Three potato, four;
    Five potato, six potato,
    Seven potato, more!

  50. One potato, two potato... was the principle counting rhyme when I was a small boy in Nottingham (in the East Midlands of England) in the 1940's.

    It was used to select someone by process of elimination. One counter chanted the rhyme, pointing to each of us in turn. When the counter got to more, that person was out and the counting resumed. And so on until there was only one person remaining. The whole thing was a prelude to any game that had to start with one protagonist. I presume this is what East Angle means by 'counting out'.

    Chants with similar function were Eany, meany, miny mo ... (although it's not acceptable to catch a n-word by the toe any more). There was also at least one spelling version. I seem to remember that the girls had a lot more rhymes than we did, because they could also be used for skipping and ball-bouncing routines.

  51. How could I have forgotten? One potato, two potato, just wasn't performed like that. I was remembering other 'counting out' routines.

    What we did was to hold two bunched fists in front of us, thumb-side up, elbows tucked in. The counter went round the circle. For each potato he touched the top of a countee's fist with the bottom of his fist. (Masculine pronouns because I can only remember segregated games.) When he came to himself he touched his left fist with his right, then right with left. Every time he reached more the touched fist was removed and placed behind the the touchee's back. This continued until the final touchee was touched on his his second fist. So, unlike other counting out rhymes, this gave everybody two lives.

    Now I've remember it, I can see how valuable it all was. It developed my sense of English speech-rhythm, metre and rhyme. It was an introduction to ritual; it seemed important to get the fist gestures precisely right. There was even a prefiguration of a sense of symbolism — not a concept I could have grasped yet. But somehow I sensed that each bunched fist in some way was and in some way wasn't a potato.

    On the segregation of games. As far as I can remember, the only mixed games were initiated when the girls wanted some kissing. I remember ranks (not files) of boys with arms round each other's shoulders marching and chanting:

    Anybody playing at
    Cowboys and Indians

  52. What's striking about all these words is how completely useless they are for actually counting seconds. You can speak them convincingly at a huge variety of speeds. If they work at all it's because you have memorised the speed and rhythm -- but under stress (eg when waiting for your parachute to open) you're likely to gabble them at double speed (as someone I know did). Perhaps if the technique was to use a long string of syllables and say them as fast as you physically can? "One Mississippi Mexico, two Mississippi Mexico..." But you still have the fact that "seven" takes more time to say than "two" and "seventeen" takes more again.

  53. one crocodile, two crocodiles, three crocodiles

  54. For sure speed counts: one little alligator, two little alligators, .... --Massachusetts

  55. My mother (born in 1914) was from the Ozarks area in Missouri (that's America - at least for the moment). She used "chimpanzee" and I (now 74, living in Missouri) continue to follow her lead. I'm told that the book St. Nicholas (pg 219) uses "chimpanzee". This book was written by American author Mary Mapes Dodge(1831-1905)who is better known as the author of the book Hans Brinker. Most people that I've heard around the St. Louis area use "Mississippi" but then most people are younger than I. Perhaps, as a child, my mother read St. Nicholas - the years would match this hypothesis. --Anita

  56. I learned from a children's book (in the USA) to count seconds as "locomotive one, locomotive two..."

    The advantage of having the number after the filler word is that the count falls on the end of the second, so it matches what you would say if watching a clock. Using a four-syllable filler word will let you estimate to a rough quarter-second.

    If you intend to use this sort of count to actually estimate seconds, you must practise by doing the count while watching a clock/watch with a second hand. It doesn't take long to get the rhythm memorised -- and like a song, it will stick with you once you've got it.


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