Not long ago I had an interesting conversation with a former colleague I met when I was a teacher years ago. She said she had recently told a group of students that a particular performance number they were rehearsing looked like a “Chinese Fire Drill.””
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“I’m not even sure they knew what I meant, but now I wonder if that was really politically incorrect,” she wondered.
We talked about whether that old expression, in fact, would be considered politically incorrect. Those of us above a certain age know exactly what a “Chinese Fire Drill” is. It’s a term we used to apply to something or some situation that we’d expect to be organized and disciplined, like the fire department responding to a fire next door. Instead the fire brigade would have hoses that were too short, water pumpers with no water and firefighters running around in flip flops and Hawaiian shirts, checking their e-mail instead of hustling up and fighting the fire. Back in the day, of course, they wouldn’t have been checking their e-mail — say, having a smoke or adding more Dixie Peach to their hair.
The cultural variation was and still is, I think, an event wherein a car full of young people, typically, comes to a red light or stop sign and all jump out and run around the car until the light changes, then jump back in the car, changing seats and drivers. I tried it a few times in the late 50s, early 60s. It wasn’t all it was cracked up to be unless the people in the cars behind made a really big deal out of being delayed, but I don’t recall any gunplay or rocks through windshields.
If she had said, “You all look like the Keystone Kops,” I doubt today’s high school age students would have had any better notion of that than of a Chinese Fire Drill. Again, some of us will remember Keystone Kops movies during the Saturday matinee down at the Bijou — in my town it was the Belmont.
The Keystone Kops would all pile out of the patrol car like a dozen clowns from a circus car. They’d run around and around the police cruiser and then dash off in every direction except that in which the suspect was making his escape.
I can’t think of any angle that would make a Keystone Kops reference politically incorrect, but I’m open to the possibility.
If you Google “eenie, meenie, miny, moe” you will find numerous versions, in different languages and different words, but the object is the same. It’s a rhyming, counting device used to determine a preference, like who you’d want to go to the prom with, or to designate a person as “it” like in a game of tag. Thus, it can go positive or negative depending on how it’s used.
A standard for the exercise is “eenie, meenie, miny, moe, catch a … by the toe. If he hollers, let him go; eenie, meenie, miny, moe.” Examples on Google include tiger, monkey, turkey and the lower case “n” word. The latter was very common in my day, although we were not allowed to use the word in my house. Out of my parents’ earshot, I expect I used it but never felt quite comfortable doing it.
There are regional and ethnic variations, German and Spanish versions. A British rhyme ended with “… if he hollers make him pay, 50 dollars every day.” Down home we used to say, “eenie, meenie, miny, moe, catch a ‘gator by the toe. If he hollers, shoot him in the head; eenie, meenie, miny moe.”
OK, I never really said that, but the point is that you could adapt it any way you wanted, and apparently it was commonly done. Just throw in some rhyming nonsense words and tack something on that maybe made some point or other, but in any case, it closed the poem.
The political correctness, obviously, depended upon whose toe you chose to “catch.”
I noticed during my research that there was not a single example of the toe’s owner being female. No “if she hollers, let her go,” which I think is kind of interesting. Surely that would be politically correct these days.
A foolproof, neutral variation for today, I suppose, would be “one potato, two potato.” That’s a good way to choose teams for a game of kickball or “43-Man Squamish” when all the potential players are assembled on the field — not sure how you’d do it to pick a date for the prom.
Looking back over the conversation, if I were in a similar situation, I hope I’d think fast enough to use Keystone Kops instead of Chinese Fire Drill. I’m inclined to feel that the latter really is culturally insensitive and not politically correct. The old “eenie, meenie, miny, moe,” well that goes without saying.
Chris Daley is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. His column appears each Friday.