Eensy weensy spider went up the water spout...

Does eensy weensy's origin precede the rhyme? What was it used for originally? Sorry, my Google-fu is badly lacking just now, and I am dying of curiosity. Anyone know how this weird combination came to be?

  • 1
    Little bitty becomes, via babytalk, itty-bitty or, further, itsy-bitsy. Thus, the rhyme's form "The itsy-bitsy spider went up the water spout." Itsy-bitsy can evolve further to incy-wincy, as some people quote the rhyme. Jan 14 '20 at 4:21
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    @MikeGraham - I was thinking it started with Tiny -> Teeny Tiny -> Teeny Weeny -> Teensy Weensy -> Eensy Weensy.
    – Jim
    Jan 14 '20 at 6:42
  • @Jim Do you expect, then, that the different versions of the rhyme (itsy-bitsy vs. eensy-weensy) are substitutions of similar phrases rather than an evolution of one phrase? Surely itsy-bitsy derives from little bitty, right? Jan 14 '20 at 7:09
  • @MikeGraham - Right. I have no data for it, but I think that’s likely. And I agree with you: little bitty -> itsy bitsy
    – Jim
    Jan 14 '20 at 7:13
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    I always heard "The itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout. And, of course, it was an itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polkadot bikini.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 15 '20 at 23:06

According to the OED, the evolution for "eensy" is in fact, as Jim suggested in the comments:

tiny > teeny > teensy > eensy.

More specifically, the dating laid out in the OED offers this ordering for attestations leading up to "eensy weensy."

tiny > teeny > teeny-weeny > teensy > teensy-weensy > eeny-weeny > eensy-weensy

Tiny dates back to the sixteenth century. Teeny is first attested in the OED in 1802 in a quote that compares the two terms.

The adjective tiny, in some provinces teeny, is no doubt from this root.

  • 1802 Monthly Mag. Dec. 405/1

Meanwhile, Teeny in reduplicated form as "teeny-weeny" appeared attested in 1842.

Did momor's yettle Dimmy want to put its teeny-weeny footseys in the gravy?

  • 1842 Penny Satirist 22 Oct. 2/1

Teensy appeared in 1856 as a variation of teeny, and is attested in the reduplicated form that preceded "eensy weensy" as teensy-weensy in 1872.

Rose was no longer a funny teensy-weensy of an infant pig, but was now a half-grown, solid, fat porker.

  • 1872 Our Young Folks July 411

Slightly later than that, and preceding "eensy-weensy," we have our first similar reduplicated variant, "eeny-weeny."

He [sc. a pet fox] was an eeny weeny cunning little red darling.

  • 1894 Narka (Kansas) News 7 Sept.

Finally, in 1904, we have our first attestation of "eensy" with "teensy," but the words are separated by a comma and do not appear as an idiomatic reduplication.

He thought they'd be about six or eight little ducks... There were only two ‘eensy’, ‘weensy’ little ones.

  • 1904 Churchman (Hartford, Conn.) 16 July 111/3

1935 offers our first attestation of "eensy weensy" as a reduplication, and it appears hyphenated.

Not even if they are eensy-weensy pieces?

  • 1935 S. Cleugh Angel who couldn't Sing xii. 157

Interestingly, the OED also offers an outlier variant "eentsy teentsy" appearing in 1914, but this does not appear to have played an etymological role in the formation of "eensy weensy."

If he discovered one edge protruding even an eentsy-teentsy bit beyond the others it would make him unhappy.

  • 1914 Daily Northwestern (Oshkosh, Wisconsin) 10 Feb. 6/5

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