Wednesday Word: Cooties

“Cooties I can handle”

…or can you?

Uma Thurman’s Pulp Fiction character Mia thought cooties were no big deal. But every third and fourth grade American school kid knows the truth: Cooties will ruin your life.

Crowded Playground Conditions Put Our Children At Risk

Cooties is the infection (some say imaginary, but are you willing to take the risk?) caught by any contact with the opposite sex.

Even the most innocent brush of fingertips while passing a foursquare ball can be enough to pass on a serious case of the disease.

But thankfully, there is a free vaccine, which also works as an antidote:

The Cooties Shot

Circle, Circle, Dot, Dot, Now You’ve Got The Cooties Shot.” That’s all it takes to cure or temporarily prevent an infection. If it were not for this readily-available treatment, our elementary school populations would have long since been decimated.

Cooties: A Wednesday Word?

The word cooties, surprisingly to many, comes from a Tagalog/Malay word kuto, which means ‘head louse’ (creepy, yes – but never fatal, as a full-blown case of cooties can be). At least 20 Austronesian languages have the word kuto for louse, showing just how widespread the disease has become.

Apparently, soldiers and sailors who spent time in Malaysia, or elsewhere in that part of the world, got lice, and created an English slang form of kuto: Cooties. From there, how the word found its way into the vocabulary of every third grade boy in North America, no linguist can even begin to guess.

There is a brief window where the concept of cooties is extremely important. In some mystical way, the word gets passed on: younger grades don’t know about it, and innocently mingle with the opposite sex, unaware of the frightening health hazards. But at approximately the same age, every child learns the word–and the tragedy–of Cooties, its social implications, its prevention, and its cure. But by junior high, their world view changes and they’re all going to dances and making out.

The Simpsons have devoted several episodes to the topic of cooties. Dilbert mentions them. Calvin constantly spurns Susie Derkins’ friendship, lest he risk an infection; his club is in fact called G.R.O.S.S. (Get Rid Of Slimy girlS).

Cooties are everywhere.

You find them in more than a few movies, for example Grease, Pulp Fiction and That Thing You Do. There are songs about cooties and even a band called Cootie Shot Scandal.

In literature, To Kill A Mockingbird used cooties in the traditional sense of head lice. A Judy Blume novel and Diary Of A Wimpy Kid both mention the dreaded malady.

Cooties. Whether you believe in them or not, now is the time to talk to your children about cooties. Here is an informative video to get that awkward conversation started.


About Bill Davis

Writer, speaker and translation and language learning consultant. I write technical articles, poetry and humor, and I am working on my first novel which is set on the island of Palawan in the Philippines.
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5 Responses to Wednesday Word: Cooties

  1. How many cootie shots will it take to be immune? How many?

  2. Carol Rives says:

    Oh, the memories that this post conjure up! Thanks for the time-machine trip back to grade school. Love it!!

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