Cooties

A Tom the Dancing Bug cartoon by Ruben Bolling, caught yesterday in Funny Times (which was reprinting it from April):

Many guffaws, especially at the last panel, with its hazmat decontamination team.

Cooties are part of the popular lore of childhood (at least in the U.S.), with an interesting linguistic history.

Wikipedia has an extensive entry that looks pretty good. It begins:

Cooties is, in American childlore, a kind of infectious disease. [Note the agreement in cooties is, with cooties treated as a singular like measles or mumps.] The term may have originated with references to lice, fleas, and other parasites. A child is said to “catch” cooties through any form of bodily contact, proximity, or touching of an “infected” person or from a person of the opposite sex of the same age. Often the “infected” person is someone who is perceived as “different” and bears some kind of social stigma: of the opposite sex, disabled, someone who is shy or withdrawn, someone who has peculiar mannerisms, etc. The phrase is most commonly used by children aged 4–10

On the history (which starts with World War I), in Wikipedia:

The earliest known recorded uses of cooties in English date back to the First World War. It appeared in a 1917 service dictionary. Albert Depew’s World War I memoir, Gunner Depew (1918), includes: “Of course you know what the word “cooties” means … When you get near the trenches you get a course in the natural history of bugs, lice, rats and every kind of pest that had ever been invented.” Similarly, Lieut. Pat O’Brien’s memoir published March 1918, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp refers to “cooties,” on pages 61, 62 and 63, which in Lt. O’Brien’s case had been caught in the prison camp in Courtrai. The infestation had originated from German soldiers who had become infested in the trenches. Cooties were treated by providing a pickle bath in some kind of solution. Lice were of course rife in the trenches on both sides of the conflict, and highly contagious.

The word is thought to originate from the Austronesian languages’ Polynesian, Tagalog, and Malay word kutu, meaning a parasitic biting insect, or kudis (pronounced kuːdiːs), meaning scabies. The term presumably having been brought to the West by Western sailors and/or soldiers who had traveled to Polynesia, the Philippines, or Malaya.

From its original meaning of head or body lice, the term seems to have evolved into a purely imaginary stand-in for anything contagious and repulsive.

OED2 has the kutu source, treated cautiously:

Probably < Malay kutu parasitic biting insect.
slang. A body louse

with its own collection of WWI cites:

1917   A. G. Empey From Fire Step 24   ‘Does the straw bother you, mate? It’s worked through my uniform and I can’t sleep.’ In a sleepy voice he answered, ‘That ain’t straw, them’s cooties.’

1918   in F. A. Pottle Stretchers (1930) 199,   I could soon fall asleep thinking how absurd to worry over lice and cooties when a man was at war.

1918   E. M. Roberts Flying Fighter 106,   I made the acquaintance of a new sport while with the battery. A saucer serves for an arena. Into this one puts a kootie and a flea.

Then there’s a considerable gap before the word appears in kid lore. From the draft additions of December 2005:

orig. U.S. A contagious germ; esp. (chiefly Children’s slang) an imaginary germ with which a socially undesirable person, or one of the opposite sex, is said to be infected. Usu. in pl.

1967   B. Cleary Mitch & Amy iii. 51   Quit breathing on it… We don’t want any of your cooties in the pudding.

1973   Jrnl. Amer. Folklore 86 135   A child who is habitually referred to as ‘having cooties’ is likely to be the poorest, dirtiest, most psychologically troubled child in the classroom… In a New Hampshire school, the boys had the ‘cooties’ and chased the girls.

1994   Lang. in Society 23 421   Chasing games, where the person caught and touched got cooties..revolve around the unfortunate girls labeled as ‘cootie queens’.

(Beverly Cleary has appeared here before. The other cites above are from scholarly publications.)

To return to Wikipedia, on the avoidance and treatment of cootie infestations:

In the United States, children sometimes “immunize” one another from cooties by administering a “cootie shot.” Typically, one child administers the “shot” using an index finger to trace circles and dots on another child’s forearm while reciting this rhyme:

Circle, circle, Dot, dot – Now you’ve got the cootie shot!

In some variations, a child then says:

Circle, circle, Square, square – Now you have it everywhere!

In this case, the child receives an immunization throughout his or her body. These variations may continue to a final shot where the child says:

Circle, circle, Knife, knife – Now you’ve got it all your life!

Or this variation:

Circle, circle, Fire, fire – Now your shot will never expire!

Or this variation:

Nickel, nickel, Dime, dime – Now you’ve got it all the time!

Or:

Circle, circle, Penny, penny – Now you have it for infinity!

In some countries, there is a slight variation of the original rhyme, it reads “circle, circle / dot, dot / now you’ve got the cootie lock”. Note the variation in the final word of the rhyme from “shot” to “lock”. The “lock” is deemed official once the child’s right thumb and forefinger are touching while interlocking with the left thumb and forefinger from the left hand. The formation often resembles a figure eight. Children acknowledge there is very little that can be done to infect a friend with cooties if he/she has the “cootie lock” effectively in place. There is little explanation that points to why there is this slight, yet important variation within Canadian and American culture.

Alternatively, cooties can be immunized through one child creating a square using his or her index and middle fingers (making a peace sign in each hand and laying one on top of the other). The other child then pokes his index finger through the square, at which point he becomes immunized from cooties infection.

In playground lore, the power of a “cootie shot” is not limited to use as an immunization. The “victim” of cooties may receive a cootie shot as treatment, at which time the cootie shot may “cure” the disease. In this way, the cootie shot acts more like an antidote rather than a vaccine. When used as an antidote, sometimes a “cooties shot” is actually just a punch to the upper arm which then “cures” the punched one from the “disease”.

Sometimes cootie catchers are constructed by children and used to trap cooties so the cooties can then be discarded.

The cootie catcher is an adaptation (apparently in the second half of the 20th century) of an earlier piece of kid lore:

A fortune teller (also called a cootie catcher, chatterbox, salt cellar, or whirlybird) is a form of origami used in children’s fortune-telling games. A player asks a question, and the fortune teller operator answers using an algorithm to manipulate the fortune teller’s shape. Questions, answers, colors or numbers may be written on the fortune teller. (link)

Here’s a blank one, especially suitable for catching cooties:

Many others, more elaborate than this one, are depicted in the web.

 

2 Responses to “Cooties”

  1. Tané Tachyon Says:

    I had never heard of cootie shots before, but did used to make and decorate cootie catchers/fortune tellers back in the ’60’s.

    My younger son is a big fan of the TV show “Community”, which uses a cootie catcher to display its title credits.

    In To Kill a Mockingbird, cooties are lice.

  2. coolstuffontheweb Says:

    I was given cooties as a child but I didn’t have good legal counsel so I didn’t receive a settlement.

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