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Tikki Tikki Tembo
Cover of Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel.jpg
Author Arlene Mosel
Illustrator Blair Lent
Country United States
Language English
Genre Children's picture book
Publisher Holt, Rinehart and Winston
Publication date
Media type Print (hardcover)
ISBN 0805006621
OCLC 303376
LC Class PZ8.1.M8346 Ti

Tikki Tikki Tembo is a 1968 picture book written by Arlene Mosel and illustrated by Blair Lent. The book tells the story of a Chinese boy with a long name who falls into a well. It is a sort of origin myth about why Chinese names are so short today.


Tikki Tikki Tembo is set in ancient China and invents an ancient Chinese custom whereby parents honor their first-born sons with long, elaborate names that everyone is obliged to say completely – no nicknames, no shortening of any kind – while second-born sons are typically given short, unimportant names. A boy named Tikki Tikki Tembo-no Sa Rembo-chari Bari Ruchi-pip Peri Pembo ("The Most Wonderful Thing in the Whole Wide World") and his little brother Chang ("Little or Nothing") are playing very close to a well at their house that their mother has warned them to avoid. Chang falls in the well and his older brother runs to their mother and tells her Chang has fallen down the well. Their mother tells him to get the Old Man with the Ladder. He goes and tells the Old Man. Chang is rescued and then recovers quickly. Some time later, the boys are again playing near the well. This time, the older brother falls in. Chang runs to their mother and tries to tell her that "Tikki Tikki Tembo-no Sa Rembo-chari Bari Ruchi-pip Peri Pembo has fallen into the well." At first she cannot hear him so he says it again. However, because Chang is out of breath from running he sputters and then mispronounces the name. His mother insists that he repeat the name—but with respect. He tries repeatedly until finally his mother tells Chang to get the Old Man with the Ladder. Chang goes to the Old Man with the Ladder. Initially, the old man does not respond because he is asleep. Further, when Chang tries to wake him up, the Old Man with the Ladder—annoyed—tries to fall back asleep. After Chang breathlessly repeats his brother's predicament the Old Man goes with Chang to save his brother from the well. They get Tikki Tikki Tembo-no Sa Rembo-chari Bari Ruchi-pip Peri Pembo from the well, but because of the long time he was in the well, it takes longer for him to recover. The end of the story says that this is why the Chinese have short names.


Tiki-Tiki-Tembo in 1924 Through Story-Land with the Children
First part of "Tiki-Tiki-Tembo", a story published in 1924

The publisher states that the author "first heard the story ... as a child" and that the book is "her own retelling" of it. However, the story is thought to have come from Japan rather than from China. Specifically, it has been suggested that the story originated from the very similar Japanese rakugo about Jugemu Jugemu Gokō-no surikire Kaijarisuigyo-no Suigyōmatsu Unraimatsu Fūraimatsu Kūnerutokoro-ni Sumutokoro Yaburakōji-no burakōji Paipopaipo Paipo-no-shūringan Shūringan-no Gūrindai Gūrindai-no Ponpokopī-no Ponpokonā-no Chōkyūmei-no Chōsuke.

In 1924, the National Association of Junior Chautauquas published a book that contained a story by an anonymous author entitled "Tiki-Tiki-Tembo"; the story concerned a boy "in old Japan" named "Tiki-tiki-tembo-no sa rembo-Hari bari broohski-Peri pen do-Hiki pon pom-Nichi no miano-Dom bori ko." Toward the end of the 1924 story, it is stated that after falling into the well, the title character "never grew up to be a fine Japanese man." A book published in 1968 (the same year as Tikki Tikki Tembo) reprinted the 1924 version of the story.

It is possible that a recorded 1941 version of a similar story (although avoided drowning) called "Long-Name-No-Can-Say" with a fat elder brother named "Nicki Nicki Tembo No So Rembo Oo Ma Moochi Gamma Gamma Goochi" was the first to change it to a Chinese setting.

A similar story is told in the American folksong "(Eddie Kucha Kacha Kama Tosa Nara Tosa Noma) Sama Kama Wacky Brown" recorded in 1960 by the Brothers Four on their eponymous first album; the title character "fell into the deep, dark well" and drowned.

A story published in 1961 by Golden Press, called "The Little Boy With the Long Name", featured an older brother named "Sticky Sticky Stumbo Nos E Rumbo E Pro Pennyo Hara Bara Brisko Nicky Prom Po Nish No Mennyo Dumbricko". The 1961 story ends with the boy's death by drowning, which was ironic because the parents had believed that giving children long names would cause them to live long lives.

Editions and translations

Scholastic records released an LP record of the story in 1968. Weston Woods Studios produced a filmstrip and cassette tape version in 1970, which was later distributed on VHS and DVD.

Translations of the book include:

  • Tikki Tikki tembo (1975, Afrikaans, ISBN: 0949975257)
  • Eka Tikki Tikki Tembo (1976, Zulu, ISBN: 0869600648)
  • Tikki, Tikki, Tembo (1994, Spanish, ISBN: 1880507137)
  • Tikki tikki tembo (1995, Xhosa, ISBN: 1868430669)

In popular culture

A White House 2003 Christmas decoration depicting a scene from Tikki Tikki Tembo
  • In 1971 Canadian composer Harry Freedman set the story to music. His 10-minute work, entitled Tikki Tikki Tembo, is scored for narrator and woodwind quintet.
  • A 1975 jazz album Brown Rice by Don Cherry contains the song "Brown Rice", in which the artist refers to Tikki Tikki Tembo.
  • A 1990 punk rock album by the band Cringer was titled Tikki Tikki Tembo No Sa Rembo Chari Bari Ruchi Pip Peri Pembo.
  • The 2003 Christmas decorations at the White House included a depiction of a scene from Tikki Tikki Tembo.
  • A song by Welsh group Anweledig on their 2004 EP Byw is titled "Tikki Tikki Tembo" and tells some of the story.
  • The 2010 song "Wildstyle Method" by Bassnectar says Tikki Tikki Tembo's full name during certain parts of the song.
  • A variation of the tale was featured in an episode of Lamb Chop's Play-Along.
  • The variant name "Nicki Nicki Tembo..."(or "Nikki Nikki..") from the older "Long-Name-No-Can-Say" story is sung in "(You Got) The Gamma Goochee" by Gamma Goochee Himself (John Mangiagli/Johnny Knight)(whose stage name is also part of the protagonist's name), covered by The Kingsmen(1965), The Persian Market (spelled "The Gamma Goochie") and Joe Walsh(1991).
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