TRIVIAL PURSUITS: From Where Did the Term ‘Cooties’ Come?

Young children have been know to tease others about having "cooties."

From where did the term “cooties” come?

The online etymology dictionary says the word came from the Malay (Austronesian) word “kutu,” the name of some parasitic, biting insect.

However, reports reveal that the popularity as a slang insult originated in World War I. As a nickname for body lice or head lice, cooties first appeared in trenches slang in 1915. It’s apparently derived from the coot, a species of waterfowl supposedly known for being infested with lice and other parasites.

According to Grammarphobia, the earliest example of “cooties” in the Oxford English Dictionary appears in “From the Fire Step,” a 1917 memoir by Arthur Guy Empey about his experiences as an American serving in the British Army:

“‘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.’”

The noun “cooties” was derived from a slightly earlier WWI word, “cooty,” an adjective meaning infested with lice and first recorded in 1915. The phrase “going cooty” meant getting lice and being quarantined for de-lousing.

Later, the word “cooties,” came to be used loosely (and often humorously) to mean imaginary germs or bugs. In “Tradition and Change in American Playground Language,” a 1973 paper in The Journal of American Folklore, Herbert and Mary Knapp say children can be protected by inoculating themselves with a “cootie shot.” In different versions of the game, the inoculation includes such ritualistic expressions as “Circle, circle, dot, dot. Now you’ve got a cootie shot.”
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