cootie noun earlier than 1967

Among North American children, cooties are an imaginary germ with which a socially undesirable person, or one of the opposite sex, is said to be infected. Our first evidence for this common playground taunt is from 1967, in a children’s novel by Beverly Cleary:

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

The word goes back earlier as slang (originally in military contexts) for ‘a body louse’, but we’re looking for earlier evidence of the ‘germ’ sense. Children’s words are notoriously difficult to find documentary evidence for. We have heard personal recollections of the word from as early as the 1950s, but we are looking for verifiable evidence. Can you help us pinpoint when this word began to make its transition into schoolyard slang?

For reference, here is the entry from OED online:

OED editor Fiona McPherson talks about this appeal in the video below:

Posted by OED_Editor on 29 September 2012 19.14
Comments: 49

  • http://www.facebook.com/thomas.thurman Thomas Thurman

    You may know about this already, but the word appears near the start of Eleanor Estes’s “Ginger Pye” (1951), which won the Newbery Medal in 1952 and is still in print. It’s used by children to describe a rumoured infection of an unpopular classmate. There’s no obvious sign as to whether the children were aware of the “louse” meaning, but it appears at least to be in transition to the modern sense.

    • OED_Editor

      Thank you. This is a great example of what is probably a transitional usage, where “to have cooties” is an insulting thing said by children, but without the sense of ‘an (imaginary) infectious germ’ that is the modern use. Here’s another, slightly later example of this, sent to us by regular OED contributor Garson O’Toole:

      1955 _N.Y. Times_ 14 June 59/2 He would tell his wife and his mother at the dinner table about the day in his 5B classroom when his friend, Hermie Grant, lost his job as window-pole monitor after having written on the blackboard that ‘Mr. Corey [his teacher] has cooties.’

      • Elsa Kramer

         The inoculation for cooties has also made a transition. The circle-circle-dot-dot of today is likely just as effective as the index finger squeeze of the early 1960s (using a square made with the shot-givers own fingers, or using a cootie catcher, http://www.clas.ufl.edu/cclc/tenacious-cooties.html).

        • http://twitter.com/PNWTom PNW Tom

          Our “inoculation” against cooties was a simple X, in ink, on the back of the hand (Anchorage, AK ca. 1972). Not helpful to the derivation of the word here, but circle circle dot dot seems similar to the pattern left on the skin from the old TB tine test. I am likely reading too much into this.

      • Laurel Wilson

        The 1955 citation seems exactly right to me:  I started school in 1952 (White Plains, New York) and graduated in 1961, after skipping a few grades.  I distinctly remember the word cooties being used–in the sense of “imaginary germs” which unpopular people had–when I was in elementary school, i.e., mid-50s.

      • Gail Mcdonald588

        Hi im sure i remember reading in laura ingalls wilders books an incident when Laura and mary went to a new school and nelly oleson said their dresses were too short and they had cooties, being from the country.  Wilders books were her memoirs and she was born in 1860s..I think it was in either ‘little house on the prairie’ or ‘on the banks of plum creek’.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sylvar Ben Ostrowsky

    I photographed a printed page that I originally found in Google Books. _Classroom Group Behavior: Group Dynamics in Education_, Bany and Johnson, c1964, p. 314: ”Whenever I could, I stressed how compatible (getting-along-together) they were as a group. I gave the ‘cooties’[12] special attention and jobs that improve and heightened their confidence and prestige. I gave the group special public speaking and audio-visual classes that the other fifth grade didn’t have. [Footnote 12: The 'cooties' were a rejected subgroup composed of children from a low economic level and so labeled because they were not clean. Previously, the teacher had worked with these children and had succeeded in his attempts to get them to wash and wear clean clothes to school.]”

    Since the footnote specifies that the children continued to be labeled as “the cooties” (but not “the kids with cooties”) even after the hygiene problem was solved, this seems to be a sense other than entomological. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/sylvar Ben Ostrowsky

    (Here’s the photograph.)

  • Peter Freshwater

    ‘Cooties’ certainly get a mention in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), but I cannno give a page reference.  How about Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn?  I don’t know them well enough to do more than suggest the possibility.

    • http://confessionofignorance.blogspot.com/ Seana Graham

      I was thinking of this same incident, and looked it up. It is in Chapter 3, where Miss Caroline, the school teacher, notices a cootie crawling out of the hair of one of the poorer children. The time of the book, which I believe mirrors Harper Lee’s own childhood, is set in 1930s Alabama. The cootie is definitely a real creature and not an imaginary one in this instance. 

  • Graphicwitness

    Found on a Wiki when googling ‘cooties’:
    The earliest known recorded uses of cooties in English date back to the First World War. It appeared in a 1917 service dictionary.[2] 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.”[3] 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 inCourtrai. 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 wordkutu, meaning a parasitic biting insect[4], 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, thePhilippines, or Malaya.[1]
    [2]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.

    • Jack Barker

      You should have included the final sentence from that Wikipedia section; “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.”
      That is exactly as I remember it from my childhood.  It was never specifically a germ, rather a general infection/infestation of something nasty, and it was always used as an insult, not a specific diagnosis.  When a child appeared at school with a shaved head, we knew it was a treatment for lice, and “lice” (not “cooties”) was the word we used.

      There was also a game, “Cooties” that came along in the late 40s, where the object was to build a plastic insect via a roll of a die before your opponent.

      • http://www.facebook.com/thomas.thurman Thomas Thurman

        Interesting: that game sounds very similar to the game that I know as beetle-drive (for which the OED has citations to 1936).

      • Julane

        Wikipedia dates the game Cootie to 1949. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cootie_(game)

  • Jack Barker

    Mmmm.  I think your limitation to print is too strict.  Many periods of literature and/or journalism were rather puritanical about slang words, thus you are limiting yourselves to written sources from the fringe.

    I know for a fact that “cootie” was in common usage in the early 1950s.  I found myself in deep trouble at school for using it in 1952, and making a sweet young girl cry.

  • feltesg

    From the New York Times, June 14, 1955, page 59  “Television: Second Banana Is Tops: Art Carney Excels in ‘Studio One’ Play”

    • OED_Editor

       Thanks. We think this is probably another example of the  transitional use also exemplified by Thomas Thurman’s 1952 submission, below.

  • Jack Barker

    OED Editor said: “Among North American children, cooties are an imaginary germ with which a socially undesirable person, or one of the opposite sex, is said to be infected.”

    I’m going to start a poll on Facebook, and ask my children to do the same, asking what the modern meaning of “cootie” is among the young.  My sense is that it hasn’t changed to specifically germs, and remains a vague infestation of something nasty, germs or bugs.

    I am also curious to know how you came to believe what you wrote.

  • John L. Gill

     I remember in grade school being taunted, usually by the opposite sex or someone of the same sex in grade school in Erie, PA.  It was evidently fairly common as most grade school children felt that it was a universal method of mocking or isolating unlike other school children and many claimed that their older siblings told them the “real” meaning of this word.

  • Patrick de la Ravalaje

    It may be worth noting that cootie, as in the body louse, had an adjectival use in the first half of the 20th century that the OED does not mention. The word, often spelled “cooty” (but perhaps “cootie” as well) appears in a number of publications. Here are just a few examples for you:

    A printing of an official diary entry for the American military dated 1 – 3 October (1917?) by First Lieutenant Hugh S. Webb and Corporal E. Howe. Printed in: Cutchins, John Stewart & others. History of the Twenty-Ninth Division. “They were doomed to remain cooty until the end of the war.” MacCalla & Co. Press. 1921. Page 132.

    O’Riordan, Conal. A Martial Medley: Fact and Fiction. “I thought of a bath,” ventured Morris; “I’m as cooty as hell.” Ayer Publishing. 1931. Page 23. The book can be found on Google Books here:
    http://books.google.com/books?id=hHJZMAUnQkoC&pg=PA132&lpg=PA132&dq=cooty&source=bl&ots=GgwrvKLjoz&sig=gYMFjxRgrrQk4lWzG1c2lqFWAIU&hl=en&sa=X&ei=O7VuUM3LHsyp0AHG0ID4BQ&ved=0CDgQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=cooty&f=false

    Have the editors considered including a mention of the word as an adjective?

  • Rolyroper

     Artist: Frank Zappa
    Album: Over-Nite Sensation
    Track: Dinah-Moe-Hum
    Quote: (whaddya mean cooties! no cooties on me!)
    Released: September 7, 1973

    Used in the sense of “crab lice”.

  • A Pearson

    I’m fascinated by NY Mayor LaGuardia’s usage of “cootie” as reported by The Southeast Missourian on 4 March 1939 (Vol. 38, No. 129). By Line: The Associated Press. Subhead reads: LaGuardia Leads Move to Expose “Cooties” to Light. Although not in line with OED’s search for childhood use, it strikes me that this might be an early indication of the word’s transition. LaGuardia applies the word to the Bund – it must have struck a chord with many adults who would have associated cooties with the Germans and WWI. He then uses it to declare Naziism as unwanted and unwelcome while other leaders denounced the Bund as UnAmerican. Is it possible LaGuardia’s usage took hold with adults during wartime and ultimately found its home in child-speak?

    http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=jv0nAAAAIBAJ&sjid=1NEEAAAAIBAJ&dq=cooties&pg=6957%2C3227143

  • Jac John

    My mother (b. 1923 London) told me that when she was doing her public health training (she’d trained as a nurse in WWII) that she’d been told that the word ‘cooties’ came about because of   Lady Coutts De Ville, who apparently was frequently and notoriously, lice-ridden despite her wealth. I cannot verify whether such a lady ever existed!

    • Erik Pedersen

      During the Second World War Nazi occupation, my grandparents in Norway illegally but mercifully harboured a Jewish refugee girl from Poland. My mother told me that they had had to burn all her clothes and shave her head to eradicate her head lice. The girl had been so sad at this because she’d once had a thick mane of very long hair that she’d kept tightly braided about her head like a crown, in the style later made famous by Yulia Tymoshenko.

      Now, according to Wikipedia, Angela Burdett-Coutts was a pioneer in social housing who, through her support of missionary and nursing efforts, was associated with Louisa Twining and Florence Nightingale. Maybe her name went to “cooties” not becasue she herself was at all dirty but because of her efforts to help the poor, the care of whom might well have included delousing and bathing them.

      If this is a possible alternative explanation to a borrowing from a Malayo-Polynesian languages, it still refers specifically to the “louse” definition, of course, not to the “imaginary germ” definition.

      – Erik Pedersen, Victoria, British Columbia

  • Joe

    In small-town Nebraska in the mid-1960s, I don’t remember ”cootie” being used.  Rather we essentially played a form of tag involving “girls germs” and “boys germs”.  You tried to avoid be infected with the germs of the opposite sex, and if infected you would attempt to pass them to someone else.  A vaccine involving a “bite” on your knuckle offered protection, but to vacinate yourself while infected meant you could not pass them on.

    I don’t remember there being any sense that these “germs” represented anything about a person except that they were a girl or a boy.

    Joe

  • Louise Rowland

    I’m from London UK. Verbally my Mother used to ask me if I was “feeling all cootie?” Meaning itchy. This would have been in the 70′s. I thought it was a family word until I read this. She obviously knew this expression from her childhood. Her father was born in 1900 and was involved in the first world was and she was born in 1933. Hope this helps.

  • http://twitter.com/PNWTom PNW Tom

    Growing up in Anchorage, Alaska, in the early 1970s, we used the word “cootie” in exactly the way defined in the online OED. This doesn’t help with the origin, but it’s likely worth noting that Beverly Cleary wrote her children’s books about fictional kids in a real neighborhood of Portland, Oregon (I know the neighborhood from friends who lived there in the 1990s). Many families who moved to Alaska between about 1960 and 1980 were from the Pacific Northwest, so the term as defined in the online OED may have gained currency in the Northwest. But its origin is, seemingly, earlier. 

    I wonder if Mayor LaGuardia’s use of the term isn’t more closely aligned with the OED’s 4th definition of the noun “coot,” defined as 
     4. fig. [Cf. 2b  ] A silly person, simpleton. (colloq., dial., and U.S.)

  • SunnyOne

     Yes, I remember in the late 1950′s while in Junior High school in Florida that we used the word “Cootie” for germs and made what we called, “Cootie Catchers” out of white paper as you describe.

  • Harvey Cox

    I first came across the word when I was introduced to the music of Duke Ellington in the early 1960s.  Between 1929 and 1940 one of the band’s trumpeters was Melvin ‘Cootie’ Williams.  I was told at the time by a jazz aficionado that ‘cootie’ meant flea.

  • Leo P

    To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), chapter 3:
    “There ain’t no need to fear a cootie, ma’am. Ain’t you ever seen one? Now don’t you be afraid, you just go back to your desk and teach us some more.”Little Chuck Little was another member of the population who didn’t know where his next meal was coming from, but he was a born gentleman. He put his hand under her elbow and led Miss Caroline to the front of the room. “Now don’t you fret, ma’am,” he said. “There ain’t no need to fear a cootie. I’ll just fetch you some cool water.”

  • S Barbour

    I am ashamed to say, but I distinctly remember, that when I was in fourth grade in 1962-63, groups of girls used the word cooties to make fun of a girl they held in contempt.  On the playground or in the girls’ room, they would yell “_____’s got cooties!” and then run away, laughing hilariously.  This interaction was strictly among girls.  When I was growing up, boys and girls rarely spoke to each other at school, to the point where teachers maintained quiet during school assemblies by seating us boy/girl/boy/girl/boy/girl.  

    I grew up in a small city in central Connecticut.I don’t remember from my childhood anyone using “Cooties!” as an attack on the opposite sex.  But this use was prevalent in my children’s school days in central New York state (boys have cooties; cootie shots, etc.)  from 1990 to 2004.    

  • Jhcharlton

    I’m afraid that I can’t remember the year exactly but it must have been about 1953 (I was about 10 years old) – I went to summer camp in the US and we made cootie catchers out of folded paper – an origami type of folding which let you open the cootie catcher in two ways – one had little pencil marks on it which we’re the cooties, and the other was plain, ie no cooties. We would pass the paper cootie catcher over someone’s hair and then open it one way or the other depending on . . . Whatever. I don’t recall that it was nasty – just funny/ silly. I think that the cooties were something like head lice.

    J Charlton

    • RobertR

       We made the same cootie catchers in about the same time frame (might have been 1950-51) in elementary school.

  • William B. Hackett

    Reading while a student at Hyde Park Elementary School, Cincinnati,Ohio, in the 1930s, left a clear, present recollection of a little bit of poetry prior to 1939.

    I woke up in the morning
    And looked up on the wall
    The cooties and the bedbugs
    Were having a game of ball.
    The score was six to nothing
    The bedbugs were ahead.
    The cooties hit a home run
    And knocked me out of bed.

    I have only a sense that it was placed in my own memory from reading in a 1930s childrens’ book.  Possibly a Clarence Buddington Kelland of his MARK TIDD Series of boy’s books or The Lorimer Sisters’ series of books for girls, one of which was titled MEN ARE LIKE STREET CARS

  • Karl_Marx

    There was a game sold commercially in which one tried to assemble one’s plastic cootie before your opponents did.  From Wikipedia:

    The Game of Cootie is a children’s roll-and-move tabletop game for two to four players. The object is to be the first to build a three dimensional bug-like object called a “cootie” from a variety of plastic body parts. Created by William Schaper in 1948, the game was launched in 1949 and sold millions in its first years. In 1973, Cootie was acquired by Tyco Toys, and, in 1986, by Hasbro subsidiary Milton Bradley. The game was given a new look and continued to enjoy commercial success. Several companies published cootie games in the first half of the twentieth century but only Schaper’s featured a free-standing, three dimensional cootie. In 2003, Cootie was named to the Toy Industry Association’s “Century of Toys List”.

    .

  • Steve Talley

    I don’t know if this is a “published” example of cootie, but when I was a child in the early 1950s our family had a game called “Cootie.” The object was to build a complete cootie out of the body parts by throwing a die at your turn and getting the right number to add a piece. By the way, a “cootie” in this game had a body, a head with two antennae and a tongue, eight legs and a tail.

  • Cherrill

    I was born in 1950 and was raised by my grandmother in Arizona the first five years of my life.  According to my grandmother, you got “cooties” if you sat on a public toilet.  I clearly understood from her that if you got cooties you were going to get sick, so her meaning of the word was germs and as a small child that is what I understood it to be.  My grandmother was born in 1898.  One of her brothers was in WWI, but I have no idea where my grandmother got the word.  In elementary school, children who had head lice had “cooties.” 

  • K Nordal Stene

    NZ head lice.  Googling ~~ Spinster  ”Sylvia Ashton Warner” cooties ~~ produced this:
    Spinster: A Novel by Sylvia Ashton-Warner . ….. and ironed, played Brahms and Grieg, combed matted heads for cooties, and carried little …Spinster was published in 1958

  • Bill Russell

    I grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In elementary school, starting in 1954, I remember both boys and girls saying, “he/she’s got cooties”. It was always said to demean another child. We never questioned what cooties were; just knew that they were invisible and bad.

  • Marilynn

    Yes, cootie catchers, and the “cooties” we drew looked like lice.  It wasn’t germs.  And it was the 1950′s, but it clearly  continued down because my children made cootie catchers in the 1980′s, too.

  • Cactus

    I remember in the early 1940′s playing a game with my brother and grandmother called “Cootie.”  It was a drawing game with dice, whereupon each part of the ‘cootie’ was assigned a number on a die and a throw of 6 dots was a leg, the ‘cootie’ having 6 legs to get, one by one.

  • DG

    My husband and I (average age 79) remember cootie catchers from the 1940s, used in elementary school as described by jhcharlton.  They were supposed to be “funny” but in fact there was more than a little cruelty in who was found to have cooties, often the least popular children. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/eugene.miya Eugene Miya

    Oh, yes, I recall the word in 1962 or maybe 1961 in playground use. Cootie was a game (never had a copy) where you assembled a plastic insect with legs, antennae, and long curly tongue.

  • http://twitter.com/loquerer Snew

    The journal Education (New England Publishing Company, 1955) recounts a schoolgirl being taunted with the term on page 477.

  • http://twitter.com/loquerer Snew

    Here’s another mention: the book “Ginger Pye” by Eleanor Estes. (Harcourt Brace, 1951) Page 5: “Let Addie sign your character books. She does not have cooties.” And page 145: “…everybody would still be saying she had cooties, and even calling her “Cooty”, if it had not been for Rachel…”

  • Diodotos

    Can’t the OED consult Lighter’s Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang?  I finally checked mine, and sure enough it has the 1917 print citation and much besides . . . Why crowdsource what a decent librarian should be able to find in minutes?

    • OED_Editor

      The OED records ‘cootie’ in the sense ‘a body louse’ from 1917. The appeal is for the later development in the sense ‘an imaginary germ with which a socially undesirable person is said to be infected’.

  • http://www.duke.edu/~goranson Stephen Goranson

    Cootie may well have developed after the saying “lousy as a coot,” as shown in discussion at American Dialect list archive:
    http://listserv.linguistlist.org/cgi-bin/wa?S1=ads-l

    Stephen Goranson

  • John Kula

    Hmmm. I was aware of the word in grade school (1950 – 1959) and high school. So I was delighted to find the following references in Google:

    The earliest known recorded uses of cooties in English date back to the First World War. It appeared in a 1917 service dictionary.[2] 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.”[3] 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[4], 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.[1]
    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.

    References:
    ^ a b 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. http://books.google.com/?id=OooGAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA34&dq=cooties+lice&cd=5#v=onepage&q=. ^ Depew, Albert N., .^ Oxford English Dictionary

    John Kula