I’m Telling On You

The customs related to telling on someone are many and varied. As if you didn’t know that.

Rather than dwelling on the many ways that tattle-tales are disparaged, let’s have a look at some of the customs assosciated with actually telling.

At my school, when someone got in trouble, one would say “um mum mum mum.” Sometimes this was done in a sing-song voice (each note getting higher before dropping off at the end), and sometimes it was a hastily spoken “um um um.” I’ve no idea where this came from, whether it was just a local thing, or what. It’s a tough one to look up!

Another popular custom in my town was to announce that you were going to tell on someone. When asked why, you would reply

Because you put ants in my pants
and made me do the boogie dance

If you were really pushing it, you might add:

all the way to France

This certainly wasn’t unique to my town, and surely pre-dates my time, though I can’t really trace it very well. The oldest book I could find it in was from 1986, which is roughly when I would have heard it. I have a theory that most people hear the initial couplet, and the third line just sort of writes itself, roughly the same way, all over the place, but maybe I’m just going out on a limb.

Where and when did YOU hear this one?

And did people say “um mum mum” when someone was getting in trouble in your town?

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  1. Anonymous

    Hahaha. We did this when I was in Kindergarten too. I dunno where it started either though.

  2. Anonymous

    ummmm (biting bottom lip) im telling on you

  3. Anonymous

    My fiancee just used some of my dad's posh coffee, I said "Ummmma, I'm telling on you" and she didn't understand why I said ummmma (nor do I tbh). She's from South Africa so I guess the custom isn't used over there. I'm from UK, grew up in Scotland where I must have picked up the umma variation. Both grew up in 1980s.

  4. Anonymous

    I dont know about the um um ums but I definitely would sing the ants in the pants song, sometimes even adding a fourth couplet:

    I've got ants in my pants
    Made me do the bogey dance
    All the way to france
    Without my underpants!

    Looking back on it I realise just how unnecessary the last couplet was, and actually that it makes no sense. I think we always realised that a little bit, but it was too much fun.

    That would have been in Los Angeles in the late 1980s.

    Good luck with the book.

  5. Herbaltablet

    Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England, mid-1980s to early 1990s:

    The local variant in my neck of the woods was a long "Ammmmmmmmmmmmm" (rising then falling in tone) followed by "I'm telling of you" or "I'm gonna tell of you" (yep, we said "of" instead of "on"; no idea why).

    By the way, in France, where I now live, they have a similar reaction, which is usually spelt "Hannnnnnnnnnn" (essentially one long nasal "ah" sound; the H, though written, is not pronounced) and followed by "Je vais le dire !" – literally, "I'm going to tell it", i.e. I'm going to tell (the teacher, a parent, etc.) what you did. This goes back to at least the 1980s.

  6. cee

    ohio early 90s:

    We used a drawn-out rising 'awwwwww', often done as a chorus. (kind of interesting musically, if you get enough voices making random rising notes, you end up with a chord that is constantly rising, but not actually getting any higher, as individuals run out of breath and restart at the bottom) Sometimes making the noise in a group turned into a more interesting game than whatever the culprit had done.

    It's hard to communicate these sounds in type, but I suspect it's similar to your 'um um um' or Herb's 'ammmm', except ours never fell at the end as far as I can remember.

  7. Anonymous

    Dun da dah dun daaaahh. We did that all my life as I was growing up, Mainly in my family, but sometimes we would bring it to school. It always went to the little ditty from the show Dragnet.

  8. Anonymous

    I'm growing up in Florida and we usually say, "Oooooooooooooo I'm telling on you" or just "I'm gonna tell"

  9. J. Blessinger

    Tangentially related: on the Indian reservation in NE Montana where I grew up in the 70s and 80s, if someone did something naughty, the expression of surprise / scandal / alarm one might utter (perhaps while considering whether he might go tell) was, oddly, "Vrrrrrrrrr!" and sometimes, "Ho, vrrrrrrrr!" I haven't the foggiest guess as to the origins of this.

  10. R. Rogers

    A: I'm telling on you?
    B: Why?
    A: 'Cause you kicked me off the bus and made me cuss!

    Oh the memories lol!

  11. pennyrobinsonfanclub.net

    The "umm umm umm" bit sounds like it might derive from Jackie Gleason's routine as Ralph Kramden when caught in such circumstances, although his response is more accurately rendered "Humminah humminah humminah. . . " Conceded, his delivery was usually more monotone and not with any rising inflection.

  12. Brett Heyboer

    You put rocks in my socks and made me get the chicken pox.

  13. Maggie

    Yes, this exactly! Mid 1980s, Northern California

  14. Daniel

    Arizona late 80’s.

  15. R

    I did elementary school in the Louisville, KY area, starting with kindergarten in 1985. The ascending “um um um um um” was definitely the most common way to express someone would be getting in trouble for what they just did. Often, multiple kids did this in unison. In addition to the ascending, the tempo would speed up, often starting with a longer, more deliberate “uhhhhhhm” and ending when one could no longer speed up/shorten their “ums.”

  16. Jdog

    I went to elementary school spanning 1982 to 1988 – Carson City/Reno area. Um Um Uuuum or Um Mum Muuuum was said all the time before someone tattled or got in trouble. In asking others about it, I found that nobody has heard “Um um uuumum” up in the Washington State area, so I assume it was a local saying (Nevada and California).

    1. playgroundjungle

      I heard it quite a bit in Des Moines in the late 80s.

  17. Anonymous

    In my kindergarten, we did exactly what the article says. 2007 Victoria, TX.

  18. Jiffy

    I’ve never heard of the rhyme about ants in the pants, but when I was a Primary School kid in southern England in the 1960s, the words “Ummmm! I’m telling on you!” were in common usage. And yes, the intonation used when saying “Ummmm!” was ‘rising then falling’. A lad named Shaun once glimpsed my penis while we were getting changed after a PE lesson and he memorably said “Ummm! I’m telling!” – which caused me significant short-term panic, because I thought he was planning to report me as some sort of marauding pervert purely because I had a penis (which presumably he did as well). But in the event, he didn’t tell on me after all. Another big “Ummm!” I can recall was when I turned up for the first day at a new school wearing the uniform of my previous school – because although my mother had ordered the uniform of the new school, it hadn’t yet arrived from the suppliers. When I walked into the playground full of blue-uniformed children first thing in the morning, clad in a red blazer and red-and-grey cap, all the kids fell silent and stared at me. Then a girl shouted out “Stuuuupid! You came to the wrong school!” When I explained that I was at the right school but that I hadn’t received my new uniform yet, the girl shouted “Ummmm! You’re going to get into trouble!”, which of course I had no reason to doubt, because the other kid knew the ropes at the school and I most definitely didn’t. The head teacher then advanced through the crowd, grim faced, and I expected to be grabbed by the ear and dragged away to an immediate thrashing – but what she actually did was tell all the other children not to be so stupid, after which she told me not to worry at all. What a relief.

  19. Barny

    SW England 1970@ ummmmmmmmmmmmm im telling of you most often with a hand, palm over the mouth.


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