How do you count Mississippis?
November 24, 2021 6:35 AM   Subscribe

My 5-year-old has been sufficiently indoctrinated into kindergarten culture that she was counting "one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi ..." when I asked her to give me 5 seconds to finish something before helping her with her coat. Which made me curious, how do children or adults in other parts of the world count seconds? I assume there must be other filler words, in a variety of languages.

For those who've never counted Mississippis, You stick it between numbers to make them take longer to say, typically starting with hide and seek or touch football games in school, when you have to get to five Mississippis before you can blitz the quarterback, and eventually using it to count how far apart the lightning and thunder are to tell how close the storm is.

(I did find a few results on Google, but they were pretty thin and paltry.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee to Writing & Language (53 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Here in Canada on the East coast, I always used "one-thousand". One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand... you don't say it as fast as possible, but with a kind of rhythm. Mississippi was also around, though one-thousand was more common.
posted by one of these days at 6:38 AM on November 24 [29 favorites]

UK - I've definitely heard people taught the "one mississippi" method here. Also "one elephant".
posted by crocomancer at 6:43 AM on November 24 [11 favorites]

I grew up in a suburb of Toronto, Canada. We had heard of counting by Mississippis (via American TV) and occasionally used that. We would also use one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, but the favourite was counting one-Mississauga, two-Mississauga with a cheeky grin on our faces.
posted by TORunner at 6:46 AM on November 24 [12 favorites]

I (grew up in Providence, Rhode Island) usually count Mississippis but I have also counted hippopotamuses
posted by an octopus IRL at 6:50 AM on November 24 [3 favorites]

To Mississippi or Not To Mississippi: A Review of Colloquial Clocks
A German approach to informal counting involves repeatedly say the word “einundzwanzig” — meaning 21 — while they keep the actual count in their head. Some Danes count crates of beer via the phrase “kasse øl”. Boring people count in increments of “one thousand”s. While our consideration of the word “elephant” affords our analysis international representation, we leave evaluation of other popular methods of informal counting to future work.
The cited reference is the AskReddit thread "When we in the US count seconds in our head, we say "Mississippi". What words do they use in other countries?".
posted by zamboni at 6:58 AM on November 24 [4 favorites]

Cape Town, South Africa.
I've heard people use "hippopotamus", "elephant" and "banana" here when counting seconds. Only just struck me that those are all African cliché words.
Also leads to unintended hilarity. A friend was counting out seconds to time the exposure of a pinhole camera. The camera is basically just a cardboard box. She got plenty of odd looks sitting in the park saying "one hippopotamus, two hippopotamus" for no apparent reason.

And it's very difficult to keep a straight face when my very intense, serious and rather humorless kayak paddling instructor wants me to count "one banana, two banana..."
posted by Zumbador at 7:00 AM on November 24 [4 favorites]

Another vote for “elephant” in the UK
posted by JJZByBffqU at 7:03 AM on November 24 [4 favorites]

Denmark - "en kasse øl, to kasser øl, etc." which translates to "1 case of beer, 2 cases of beer..."
posted by alchemist at 7:03 AM on November 24 [13 favorites]

From Southern California, and we actually counted alligators before blitzing the quarterback, but "one-thousand" and Mississippis were also common.
posted by LionIndex at 7:05 AM on November 24 [5 favorites]

In Austria we count from twentyone, eg einundzwanzig, zweiundzwanzig, dreiundzwanzig etc. It works out - if done slowly - to a second per word and yes, is used also to determine distance of a thunderstorm.
posted by 15L06 at 7:07 AM on November 24 [2 favorites]

In Dutch and Flemish, twenty-one is also used as a spacer.
posted by humph at 7:09 AM on November 24 [1 favorite]

I learned it from Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator:
It is difficult to explain what happened next, and whatever it was, it only lasted for one second. A second is about as long as it takes you to say aloud and quickly, "one-two-three-four-five."
All these years later, that's still how I count seconds.
posted by verstegan at 7:28 AM on November 24

I can't find a clip, but on Farscape, D'Argo was (sort of) following Crichton's lead by counting "one mippippippi, two mippippippi..."
posted by xedrik at 7:40 AM on November 24 [8 favorites]

Nthing "One Elephant" in the UK
posted by Balthamos at 7:55 AM on November 24 [1 favorite]

I'm in the UK, but alas, no elephants for me; my Essex primary school went with "one-thousand" as the spacer, back in the '80s.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 7:57 AM on November 24

We also used Locomotive when I was growing up.
posted by bleep at 8:20 AM on November 24 [2 favorites]

West coast Canadian here; have always used “one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand.”
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:24 AM on November 24 [1 favorite]

"one thousand", or "crocodile" (South Africa)
posted by snarfois at 8:27 AM on November 24 [2 favorites]

UK here, I don’t know if this was just my parent (can’t remember which), but I was taught “One a second, two a second, three a second…” You have to speak fairly slowly for it to work.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 8:32 AM on November 24 [2 favorites]

I think it was on Lost where one of the characters separated the count by "sugar plum fairy," which I have adopted and will pretend that I've done since childhood, instead of since Lost -- it's so charming that I don't care if it's inaccurate.
posted by theredpen at 8:36 AM on November 24 [1 favorite]

South east UK here, used the thousands method.
posted by ellieBOA at 8:54 AM on November 24

One orangutan, two orangutan....
posted by intrepid_simpleton at 9:09 AM on November 24

California here, but I picked up "One Chicago, Two Chicago..." from a classmate in grade school and still use it.
posted by zombiedance at 9:24 AM on November 24

Aside from Mississippi I've heard One-One Thousand... quite a bit and One-Crocodile on occasion.
posted by downtohisturtles at 9:47 AM on November 24

I guess one battleship two battleship referenced in Wiktionary by Zamboni flags me as a navy brat . . . me hearties.
posted by BobTheScientist at 9:52 AM on November 24

UK, elephant or armadillo.
posted by paduasoy at 10:14 AM on November 24

I play ultimate and we call the time a thrower has to get rid of the disc "the stall count" so it's convention to use "Stalling one, stalling two....etc" up to ten.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:17 AM on November 24

A small oddity. Most of you seem to be putting the spacer word in the wrong place. We always counted putting the spacer word first: mississippi one, mississippi two, ..., so that when we spoke the count, we had reached that count, in seconds.
posted by chromium at 10:19 AM on November 24 [3 favorites]

In Dutch and Flemish, twenty-one is also used as a spacer.

I'm Dutch. I've never heard it used as a spacer. I have however heard counting up from twenty-one in order to count seconds.
posted by Too-Ticky at 11:24 AM on November 24

Toronto: "steamboat"
posted by SNACKeR at 11:28 AM on November 24 [2 favorites]

i grew up playing "five-mississippi rush" street football. also heard the one one thousand thing. usian.

one-mississippi is the correct structure.
posted by j_curiouser at 12:04 PM on November 24

Northern California, 70s-80s kid: "one one-thousand," and IIRC "mississippi" was what old people and kids who moved here from somewhere else used, the "one-thousand" way having apparently been only recently invented.
posted by rhizome at 1:04 PM on November 24

Northern British Columbia, Canada. We did Mississippis and also "A thousand one a thousand two."
posted by synecdoche at 1:44 PM on November 24

I grew up all over the southern and eastern US. I’m familiar with Mississippis, One-Thousands, and Hippopotamuses.
posted by OrangeVelour at 3:41 PM on November 24 [1 favorite]

One cat and dog, two cat and dog, in Australia.
posted by pompomtom at 4:05 PM on November 24 [4 favorites]

One, and-a-two, and-a-three, and-a.....
posted by bashing rocks together at 4:30 PM on November 24

One one-hundred, two, two-hundred, three, three-hundred etc
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 4:33 PM on November 24

My kid's kindergarten in southern California went for the "school unity" thing by meteing drinking fountain time by counting "One , two ."

I tried teaching one-one-thousand to a kid who was still shaky on how numbers past 20 worked, and they were completely mystified.

posted by lostburner at 4:48 PM on November 24

A lot of the time, with kids, I just pick something on the spot. "Let's count bumblebees! One bumblebee, two bumblebee."
posted by lostburner at 4:50 PM on November 24

Like SNACKeR above, we in Northern Ontario also used "steamboat."
posted by unlapsing at 5:24 PM on November 24

Australia. We also did ‘Mississippi’, which is weird when I think about it, especially as I grew up in the 80s. (Sesame Street influence, maybe?)
posted by Salamander at 5:56 PM on November 24

When I was growing up (New York City) we used "Mississippi" for counting but pronounced it with three syllables, as "Mis'sippi".
posted by Umami Dearest at 6:46 PM on November 24

Oregon. I'd heard Mississippi, but the norm was thousand. One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, etc.
posted by stormyteal at 7:09 PM on November 24

Not sure if this really answers your question, but I'm from New Zealand and I have literally never used a word as a counting spacer nor heard it anywhere except on TV. Checked in with my brothers and they say the same thing.
posted by BeeJiddy at 10:32 PM on November 24 [1 favorite]

Ipswich, Qld, Australia and we said one mashed potato two mashed potato etc.
posted by h00py at 4:26 AM on November 25 [3 favorites]

The podcast A Way With Words just did a segment on this topic! Here it is, from the Oct 25, 2021 episode:
posted by Liesl at 5:06 AM on November 25 [1 favorite]

A friend has reminded me about one-caterpillar. Though we then realised her cat's three-syllable name works well so this may have to be it for the future.
posted by paduasoy at 1:51 PM on November 25

Yeah, certainly heard "mashed potato".
posted by pompomtom at 12:14 AM on November 26 [1 favorite]

In decreasing order of frequency (1970s, near Toronto) it would have been one thousand / potato / steamboat / Mississippi. But even the gap from the first to the fourth was not huge; at a guess, maybe 20% of the kids went with “Mississippi” by preference. If there was a fifth place entry, I cannot recall it.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:50 AM on November 26

Grew up MI, one-mississippi and one-one-thousand were both used. I want to say the latter was more "official" and the former more "informal" but I can't say for sure.

Thinking in musical terms, you could probably do like... "one and a two and a two and a two and a three and a two...." My music theory is not quite up to remembering what that time signature would be but uh it seems like it would be a more objective way to count out seconds?
posted by tivalasvegas at 12:21 PM on November 28

Response by poster: This thread provided DELIGHTFUL Thanksgiving conversation for my entire family and we all thank you for it!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:38 PM on December 2

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