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