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?
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