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The word "Mississippi" is often used in the United States as a filler in order to count seconds. Why is that particular word used and not another? What is its origin?

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  • I think it's just an arbitrary chosen word. Even the number of syllables accounts for nothing, in Russian while counting seconds one uses a 1-syllable word и [i] "and", like "1 and 2 and 3 and 4, etc." It's just a matter of habbit.
    – Yellow Sky
    Feb 7 '17 at 21:55
  • In Germany, ein-und-zwan-zig zwei-und-zwan-zig etc. is used to count seconds. This are also four syllables per second, but the advantage to Mississippi counting is the you speak the counter and don't require finger counting. Feb 8 '17 at 9:39
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    @jknappen when counting with Mississippi you say the counter, no fingers necessary; "one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi..." (The phrase "one thousand" is also used commonly, "one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand...") Feb 9 '17 at 10:50
  • Danes tend to count ‘crates of beer’, the origin of which should be rather obvious given their alcoholic habits… Nov 5 '20 at 18:27
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This style of counting is often used when the one counting aloud is in an adversarial relationship to other listeners. The addition of the "filler" word is, no doubt, at the request of the adversary to slow down the speaker.

Imagine two children. They both agree that one will close his eyes and "count to 10" or "count for 10 seconds" while the other hides. However, the child counting will try to count as quickly as possible. The child attempting to hide will consider the rapid counting unfair.

Mississippi and alligator are both four syllable words that American children are exposed to while they are very young, so children are simply reusing a "big" word they already know. Additionally, in an adversarial counting situation, these words have the benefit that even in rapid speech, it will take the speaker about a second (especially if this is the speaker's goal), or at least extend the counter's "time limit" to something considered fair by others.

Mississippi is an appealing word for this because:

  • American children are already familiar with this word
  • It's easy to pronounce for children (duplicated sounds and no consonant clusters)
  • Its pronunciation approximates a second in rapid speech
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  • Love this answer, both the detailed child psychosocial explanation and for the linguistic remarks.
    – Typhon
    Feb 13 '17 at 22:54

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