Italian Counting Rhymes and Promiscuous Owls

12 Nov


Dear readers, imagine the following scene. I actually posted this as a quick status update on my Facebook page, and then when I got deeper into it I realized it was fodder for another totally trivial and nonsensical blog post.

You’re welcome! Happy to oblige, as always, in keeping you up to date on the lesser-known and totally irrelevant aspects of life in Rome.

Ok, so, yes. The scene. Me and my son in his bedroom as he attempts to select his bedtime story from the masses of English books my mom has thankfully supplied us with from the States. It’s not easy, folks. Phineas and Ferb? Sponge Bob? Iron Man? What would you do to choose?

Well. My son, like any other astute almost-six-year-old, went for the tried and true method of the “counting rhyme.”

You know the counting rhyme, right? When you have to pick something as a kid, so you do that thing where you start to recite a totally incomprehensible little ditty that, once you get to the last word in the sequence, has you pointing at your choice?

When I was a kid in the States it was “eenie meenie miney mo.” Because Wikipedia is the font of all knowledge (despite the fact that the people who monitor and police it are anal-retentive robots who should be destined to an eternity in a boiling kettle of hot oil watched over by Lucifer himself, and no I haven’t had articles thrown out by them for lack of third-party sources, why do you ask?), you can find the entire text of that one here. It’s a harmless little chant about performing the super-human feat of catching a tiger by its toe, but humanitarily letting it free if it protests. Honestly, to me that works just fine.

So, imagine my surprise when, as I let the contents of my son’s Italian counting rhyme waft into my over-tired ears, I seemed to hear the following phrase: “facevano l’amore con la figlia del dottore.”


Me: “Hey Vince! Did you just say ‘they were making love with the doctor’s daughter’!?”

V, laughing: “Yeah!”

Now. My son is nearly six, so he wouldn’t know the physiological implications of the phrase “making love” any more than he’d understand the mechanical implications of a double-clutch transmission. I, however, was intrigued and amused. A childhood counting rhyme involving illicit sex with the doctor’s daughter? Oh, come now. That’s just too fun to pass up.

Because of the fact that I couldn’t for the life of me figure out the damn name of the song, and because of the fact that at age six, my son is already inexpressibly mortified by any and all of my behaviors (I don’t blame him), when I tried to sing it so that he’d correct me and tell me the right name, he just kept yelling at me: “Stop it mom! That’s not how it goes!!!”

Me: “Biki chiki coco??” “Barba cooko cacki?” You get the idea.

Even Google wouldn’t help me, not even that super handy-dandy autocorrect that usually is underlined and hyperlinked right up top for you when you type “How do you spell mispell?” and it says “Did you mean ‘how do you spell misspell?'” and you’re like “That’s what I’m asking YOU, Google!”

Yeah, so barba cheeky cooky cokey didn’t produce anything. But I had an ace up my sleeve. I had THE DOCTOR’S DAUGHTER BEING NAUGHTY. So I typed in “facevano l’amore con la figlia dell’dottore” and you better believe how much I, in the illustrious words of the Google search button, “felt lucky.”

So, the song is called AMBARABA’ CICCI’ COCCO’.


But the best part of the song? The best part of the song, folks, is WHO exactly is MAKING LOVE with the doctor’s daughter. Have a look-see for yourself:

“Ambarabà ciccì coccò
tre civette sul comò
che facevano l’amore
con la figlia del dottore
il dottore si ammalò
ambarabà ciccì coccò!”

Ambarabà ciccì coccò
Three owls on the nightstand
Making love
with the doctor’s daughter
the doctor got sick
ambarabà ciccì coccò!

The doctor got sick? Yeah, I’ll sure bet he did!

Oh, love. And when I tried to tell my son: “Hey there son, when I was a kid (I walked uphill both ways to school, etc.) we used to sing “Eenie meenie miney mo, catch a tiger by the toe,” he’s like “Moooommmmm….”

It’s hopeless. My kids are destined to a life of utter and eternal embarrassment. I feel for them. I really do. But not as much as I feel for the poor doctor. What kind of upbringing is that, anyways? Mah!

Oh my God. No. There is a very detailed and involved etymological analysis of said counting rhyme. If you’re brave, and you speak Italian, go forth and learn about it. That one there is a blog post. But, you can really thank linguist Vermondo Brugnatelli for revealing the mystery.

You know, now that I think of it, I really should have named my first-born Vermondo. That is just spectacular.

Last trivial piece of trivia, if you’re still holding on reading here: Umberto Eco wrote an entire semiotic essay on this and other tantalizing topics, which in Italian is part of a collection of essays titled Il Secondo Diario Minimo, but which has been partially translated into English in the form of How to Travel With Salmon and Other Essays. Because I do not have aforementioned book, I cannot confirm for you whether or not the collection contains the story. But, traveling with salmon sounds fun too.

OH MY GOD, do you see how exciting it is to question things in life? You can start with bestiality and end with Umberto Eco. Life is beautiful, folks, is it not?


5 Responses to “Italian Counting Rhymes and Promiscuous Owls”

  1. Tabitha Langley November 13, 2013 at 9:26 pm #

    I am currently the nanny of a six-year old Italian girl and I asked her about this. She immediately recited it to me and I just started laughing to myself. In exchange I taught her “eenie meenie miney mo”. The little girl loved it and she memorized it pretty fast haha.

  2. Emily November 17, 2013 at 8:36 pm #

    Did you know that the catch a tiger by the toe rhyme actually has some unsavory origins? Replace tiger with a horrible word for African Americans, and there you have it.

  3. Shelley Ruelle November 21, 2013 at 3:39 pm #

    Tabitha, that’s so cute! Cultural exchange! 😉

  4. Shelley Ruelle November 21, 2013 at 3:39 pm #

    Nope, didn’t know that!

  5. Gil November 21, 2013 at 9:08 pm #

    Must have been a long time ago as I’m in my late 60s and it was always a tiger.

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