Nonfiction > Lionel Strachey, et al., eds. > The World’s Wit and Humor > American
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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes.  1906.
Vols. I–V: American
 
Gibberish
By William Livingston Alden (1837–1908)
 
From “Shooting Stars”

IT is estimated that there are at this moment seven million small boys in this country. Of this number—if we except those who are deaf, dumb, blind, and idiotic—there is not one who is not familiar with that mystic formula known as “Aina maina mona mike,” and who does not habitually use it as a means of divining who shall be “it” in the various games incident to boyhood. How each successive generation of small boys comes into possession of this formula is one of the most profound and difficult questions of the age.
  1
  The superficial thinker fancies that the solution of this problem is a very simple one. He hastily assumes that one generation teaches “Aina maina” to its successors, and that the knowledge of the formula is thus handed down from father to son. But is there a single instance on record in which a father has deliberately imparted this knowledge to his son? We all know from our own experience that long before we have arrived at manhood, and become seized and possessed of our personal small boy, we have forgotten the lore of our childhood and hence are not in a condition to impart it to any one. There always comes a period in our lives when we hear our sons rehearsing “Aina maina” with confidence and accuracy, and as we suddenly remember that we, too, once knew those mystic words, we wonder whence the new generation of small boys learned them. The fact that fathers do not teach them to their sons will appear so plain, upon a very little reflection, that it is unnecessary to dwell longer upon it at this time. In whatever way the venerable formula comes into the possession of one generation, it is quite certain that it is not learned from the previous generation.  2
  It is a noteworthy fact that no small boy is ever able to tell from whom he learned “Aina maina.” If we ask any casual small boy who taught him the mysterious syllables, he will invariably reply “Dunno,” and promptly change the subject. We cannot tell how we ourselves learned them, and all our memory can tell us is that there was an exceedingly remote period when we did not know them, and a somewhat later period when they were perfectly familiar to us. Here, then, we have the remarkable phenomenon of an elaborate formula in an unknown tongue, which every boy knows, without knowing from what source he learned it, and as to which we simply know that he does not learn it from the preceding generation. Whence comes the knowledge, and in what way is it handed down through the centuries? This is a problem which Sir Isaac Newton said he “would be hanged if he could solve,” and of which Comte remarked that “it is beyond the limit of our intellectual powers, and hence should not receive the slightest attention.”  3
  The ancient sages and philosophers were as much in the dark as to this matter as we are. Plato mentions that Iphigenia was selected for the sacrifice by a soothsayer, who repeated “Aina maina” until the lot fell upon that unhappy damsel; and he adds that “this method of divination was brought to Greece by Cadmus, who doubtless learned it from the barbarians.” This may or may not be true, but in either case it throws no light upon the question how the formula has been handed down to the present day. Socrates alluded to the matter once, if not twice, and is reported to have said to Alcibiades: “Tell me now, Alcibiades, whence did you learn to divine through (or by means of) ‘Aina maina’?” to which Alcibiades replied, “I dunno.” “Then,” continued the sage, “it is impious for you to ask me how it happened that I was last night banged as to the head with the dirt-devouring broom; for he has no right to propose delicate personal conundrums who is unable, whether through his own dulness or the displeasure of the gods, to answer simple questions in two syllables.” This shows that Socrates perceived the mystery which enshrouds the subject, but it does not appear that he ever penetrated it.  4
  Now, it is evident that if the knowledge of this strange formula is not taught by one generation to another—and we know perfectly well that it is not—it must be developed spontaneously in every small boy’s mind. The small boy has his measles and chicken-pox, and other strictly juvenile physical diseases, and he ought, by analogy, to have some form of mental disease peculiar to his age. Medical men are well aware that talking in unknown tongues—or gibbering, as it is usually called—is a symptom of certain forms of brain disease, and it is credibly asserted that most of the remarks made in unknown tongues by the followers of the erratic Edward Irving were simply repetitions of “Aina maina.” Let us, then, suppose that when the small boy suddenly breaks out with the same curious formula, it is a symptom of a juvenile brain disease, just as the eruption which at some time roughens every small boy’s surface is a symptom of chicken-pox. This hypothesis fully explains the whole mystery. No small boy learns the chicken-pox from his father, and yet every small boy has it. No small boy learns “Aina maina” from his father, and yet if a small boy were to be kept in solitary confinement from his birth up to his fourteenth year, he would infallibly break out with the knowledge of “Aina maina.” When a hypothesis meets all the facts of any given case, it may properly be accepted until another and better hypothesis is devised. The hypothesis that this knowledge of “Aina maina” is a symptom of brain disease stands precisely upon the same ground as the hypothesis of development, and the moment this fact is brought to Professor Huxley’s attention he will adopt the one as eagerly as he has adopted the other.  5
 
 
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