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Related to childlore in the United States of America and Canada, cooties are a kind of infectious disease. It is also a term used for body lice and for a wooden container used for food or drink. 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is perceived as "different" and bears some kind of social stigma: of the opposite sex, disabled, someone who is shy or withdrawn, someone who has peculiar mannerisms, etc. Usually the phrase is used on girls by boys, as in "now you've got girl cooties". The phrase is most commonly used by children aged 4–10; however, it is also used by many others older than 10 in a sarcastic or playful way.
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, Tagalog, Māori  and Malay word kutu, meaning a parasitic biting insect, or kudis (pronounced kuːdiːs), meaning scabies. The term presumably was 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, it seems to have evolved into a purely imaginary stand-in for anything contagious and repulsive.
The lice of the First World War trenches nicknamed "cooties" were also known as "arithmetic bugs" because "they added to our troubles, subtracted from our pleasures, divided our attention, and multiplied like hell."
For ages 5 onwards, Cooties are known in Denmark as "pigelus" (literally "girl lice"), and "drengelus" ("boy lice") and in Norway as "jentelus" ("girl lice") and "guttelus" ("boy lice"). In Sweden and Finland, it usually refers to girls, where they are known as "tjejbaciller" (literally "girl bacilli") and "tyttöbakteeri" ("girl bacteria").
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!
- Circle, circle, Penny, penny, – Now you have it for infinity!
A variation of treatment, cure, or immunization play practiced by children from the Eastern US (known at least in Pennsylvania and West Virginia) involves spraying the victim or person to be immunized with an imaginary spray. Children may also "disinfect" areas previously occupied by infected individuals with a similar method. There is no associated rhyme with this practice.
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.
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".
Cooties in popular culture
As with any cultural convention, cooties are often referenced in movies, music, on television, in novels and on the Internet. References range from physical manifestation as fantastical creatures to more realistic portrayal as a cultural convention and to the traditional interpretation as lice.
- Stephanie gives Sheldon a cootie shot in season 2, episode 10 of the The Big Bang Theory.
- Calvin, of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, fears that he will catch them when he is the only boy on a playground full of girls.
- Jason Fox of FoxTrot has a fear of girls and often mentions getting cooties after being touched by any girl in his class.
- Irwin catches cooties and mono from kissing Mandy in Billy and Mandy's Big Boogey Adventure.
- Cockroach Cooties is a novel by Laurence Yep.
- Cooties are the word for the lice in a child's hair in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
- In one of Johnathan Rand's American Chillers books (Oklahoma Outbreak), it was said for an outbreak of cooties to overtake a school.
- In Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume, Sheila Tubman (Peter's classmate) still believes in cooties and Peter and Jimmy Fargo give her the cooties.
- OED.com states that this term was used in Mitch and Amy, a children's book by Beverly Cleary.
- "Cooties" was one of the competitive song and dance numbers in the Broadway Musical, Hairspray.
- Cooties have been referred to in a number of episodes of The Simpsons.
- Cooties feature in the 1990s television series Dexter's Laboratory, as small, girly insects with curly snouts that inhabit the bedroom of Dexter's older sister, Dee Dee.
- In one episode of the Cartoon Network program The Powerpuff Girls, cooties were featured prominently, since at first, they are the main weakness of the Rowdyruff Boys, as they explode when the Girls kiss them in order to defeat them. However, later on, when they are resurrected by Him, they are given anti-cootie vaccinations with a spell 'Circle, circle. Dot, dot. Now you got your cootie shot' to make them immune to the Girls' kisses.
- Robot Chicken episode "President Evil" featured a sketch parody of the film Outbreak, in which a school and government officials deal with an outbreak of "Cooties" as if it were a real contagion and ends with government bombing the school.
- The MTV2 show Wonder Showzen featured an episode called "health" where a character called Wordsworth comes down with a case of the cooties; his friend Him uses it to his advantage and sells Wordsworth's encrusted cootie sores as snack treats.
- The Game of Cootie, a children's tabletop game that uses 3-dimensional figures to portray the cooties as insectoid creatures.
- Cooties have been referred to in the movie Pulp Fiction (1994).
- The line, "What's wrong? We don't got Cooties" appears in the sleepover scene in the film Grease.
- In the song "Circle Circle Dot Dot" by Stu Stone and Jamie Kennedy, they typically use the phrase "I got my cootie shot"
- Frank Zappa song "Dinah-Moe Humm" contains the line, "What do you mean cooties? No cooties on me!"
- Cootie catcher
- List of fictional diseases
- Sex education
- Gender studies
- Gender identity
- Sex segregation
- "Body louse – Medical Definition and More from". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2013-06-22.
- "Cooties | Define Cooties at Dictionary.com". Dictionary.reference.com. Retrieved 2013-06-22.
- "Appeals: cootie | Oxford English Dictionary". Public.oed.com. Retrieved 2013-06-22.
- Sue Samuelson (July 1980). "The Cooties Complex". Western Folklore 39 (3, Children's Folklore): 198–210. doi:10.2307/1499801. JSTOR 1499801. OCLC 50529929.
- Frank H. Vizetelly (1917). The soldier's service dictionary of English and French terms: embracing 10,000 military, naval, aeronautical, aviation, and conversational words and phrases used by the Belgian, British, and French armies, with their French equivalents carefully pronounced, the whole arranged in one alphabetical ... (2 ed.). Funk & Wagnalls. p. 34.
- Depew, Albert N., .
- "Definition of cootie". Collins English Dictionary. Retrieved 2013-06-22.
- Oxford English Dictionary
- Robert B. Asprey (1996). At Belleau Wood. University of North Texas Press. p. 26. ISBN 978-1-57441-016-7.
- "p. 10". Web.archive.org. 2008-10-31. Archived from the original on 2008-10-31. Retrieved 2011-10-31.
- "Cootie Catchers". The Daring Book for Girls. Retrieved 2013-06-22.
- Tregear E., The Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary, Lyon and Blair, Wellington, NZ (1891)
- Origin of "cooties" from The Straight Dope.
- Cooties - by PITtv fun video.