Cooties

Or possibly from the French for “Remember me.”

Dear Word Detective:  A coworker suggested that another, who was showing signs of a cold, go home so that he didn’t “give us all his cooties.” More commonly, of course, even in this era of fear of bedbugs, we all know that “cooties” are that thing the opposite sex has when you’re a kid. But why? I was surprised not to find this in the archives of your website; perhaps the answer is unprintable? — A in Berkeley.

Eek, bedbugs! Actually I think I’ve discovered another benefit of living in the middle of nowhere. Our old farmhouse may have mice in the walls, possums in the cellar, squirrels in the attic, and venomous spiders in every nook and cranny (not to mention coyotes that come right up on the front porch looking for lunch), but so far (knock wood) no bedbugs.

A discussion of “cootie” is definitely not unprintable today, although it probably would have been back in the 1950s. In the literal sense, a “cootie” is a body louse, a nasty little biting creature that afflicts people who don’t have access, for whatever reason, to clean laundry and facilities for maintaining proper personal hygiene. The term “cootie” apparently entered the mainstream US lexicon in the wake of World War I, in which months spent in the trenches of Europe gave soldiers a regrettable familiarity with lice (“‘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,’” 1917).

The origins of “cootie” are a bit murky. The most likely source is the Malay word for louse, “kutu,” but how the word made the leap to soldiers in Europe is unclear. Michael Quinion of World Wide Words (www.worldwidewords.org) suggests that a related word may exist in Tagalog (the language of the Philippines) and was picked up by US soldiers stationed there, which seems very reasonable to me. Quinion also notes that the word “cootie” has remained US-centric and is virtually unknown in Britain.

Interestingly, “cootie” is rarely used in this literal sense today; perhaps the intractable problem of head lice in US schoolchildren has taken the sting of scandal out of the word “lice.” But the use of “cooties” is alive and well, especially among children, in the sense of, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it, “an imaginary germ with which a socially undesirable person, or one of the opposite sex, is said to be infected.” The first citation for this use in the OED is from 1967, but since it’s from a Beverly Cleary young adult novel (“Quit breathing on it… We don’t want any of your cooties in the pudding,” Mitch and Amy), we can assume the term was in use among children for at least a few years before that appearance.

The use of “cooties” to mean “real germs or microbes of an unidentified sort,” as in your example, is interesting for two reasons. First, it seems pretty clearly to be a simple extension of the child-vernacular “cooties” into the adult world, where it is used in a new literal, if usually jocular, sense, usually among friends. (I have it on good authority that the CDC does not, for instance, issue directives employing the term “cooties.”) So there may be some evidence of the creeping infantilization of US culture there (as if we needed more). Secondly, the perpetuation of a concern about undifferentiated “cooties” dovetails nicely with accelerating germophobia in the US, as evidenced by anti-microbial wipes at the entrance of nearly every store and the impregnation of nearly every product with germ-killing agents. As someone who discovered last week that he had unwittingly bought a kitty-litter pan infused with an anti-microbial agent, I think we’ve gone a bit over the edge. A few cooties are good for you, boys and girls.

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