On Cooties

Perhaps the best known of all playground customs is the game of “cooties.”

In its purest form, one kid is said to bear a microscopic bug-based ailment known as “cooties,” which is spread by touching others. That’s really the whole game – one kid is said to have cooties, and said kid spreads it around to kids who don’t protect themselves. To claim that someone has cooties can be a harmless opening for a game, or a genuine taunt designed to keep others away from someone.

Protection against cooties often takes the form of “cootie shots,” such as the famous “circle circle dot dot, now you have the cootie shot” drawn on one’s arm, though countless variations exist. In other schools, kids have been known to write C.P. (Cootie Protection) on their hands or sneakers. When cooties are passed on to someone who isn’t protected, the spreader may state “no give backs” or something along those lines. Some schools have kids designated as “Cootie Queens.”

The Knapps’ book (see the sidebar on the right) states that it became popular after World War I, which lines it up to the time when people outside of medical communities first became aware of the idea of “germs.”
As is so often the case, “cooties” seems to have have started with the military. Throughout World War 1, soldiers referred to lice as “cooties.” They even turned up in trench songs, such as this one. The “cooties” were a constant problem for soldiers, due in part to the inadequate bathing facilities in the trenches and all of the dead bodies lying around. I really can’t think of anything more depressing that being a World War I soldier, except perhaps for being a World War I vet looking back at the hell that was the war and wondering what it all accomplished. Well, it DID bring about a popular playground game.

Some interesting soldier slang about cooties:
Cootie Cage – bunk area
Cootie Garage – hair
Cootie Carnival – hunting shirts for lice

That the term was growing to be applied to undesirable people is evidence by the flapper slang term of the next decade, “cuddle cootie,” which meant “one who’s idea of a good date is to take girls for a ride on the bus.” Par-tay! (see The Smart Aleck’s Guide to American History for more flapper slang!) This is one of those things that can’t exactly be proven, but it’s to be assumed that kids hearing their veteran fathers talk about “cooties” probably gave this game its jump start, and “cooties” went from being a very real ailment involving tiny bugs to a fake ailment involving tinier ones.

At my school, we knew the IDEA of cooties, and a few of the shots and protections, just from pop culture, though I remember wondering what the heck Sheila Tubman was talking about when she said “Peter’s got the cooties” in Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing in first grade. We had the same game, but we always called them “germs” instead of “cooties.” If Marissa sneezed, you could bet someone was going to touch your arm and say “Sneezy Marissa germs. No returns.” Same concept, different name. The only real difference is that kids generally know (at least deep down) that cooties aren’t “real,” but germs are.

Certainly this is only one variation – the same sort of game has existed all over the world for some time. There’s no mention of “Cooties” in Opie’s LANGUAGE AND LORE OF SCHOOLCHILDREN, the great study of UK kids in the 50s, but it’s awfully similar to “kiss chase,” which was exactly what it sounds like (if you didn’t want to be kissed, you could invoke protection by saying “eksies.”)

What names and rules for cooties did YOU have? Did similar games pre-date the great wars on playgrounds? The game it came to be played was probably widely influenced by the germ theory of disease, but I imagine that variations on the game (perhaps racially based ones) might pre-date that.

Weighing in on the game and ailment, here’s urban fantasist and disease enthusiast Seanan McGuire:
The interesting thing about the game of cooties is that it encourages the idea that the way to be “cured” (IE, freed of the infection) is to pass the cooties to another victim. Quarantine and medical treatment are not the answer. This fits the rise of the game as following the reduction of many endemic childhood diseases, since measles are less fun to play games about when you’ve had them, and encourages a general disregard for quarantine procedures.

The behavior of the cooties themselves supports cooties-as-parasites, rather than cooties-as-virus. (If you don’t believe that parasites can, and will, modify the behavior of their hosts…you’re probably happier that way.) Cooties are clearly a type of small parasitic fluke or arachnid which prefer to live on schoolchildren, possibly due to using library paste as a reservoir for their eggs, and which encourage their hosts to touch others while announcing infection, thus leading to panic and a further spread of the cootie population.

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5 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    One of the things kids used to make was a "cootie catcher" (seen at wikipedia – people would actually draw cooties on some of the inner panels so that in one position, there were no cooties; in the other position, there were cooties. Then you'd pretend to catch them from people who had cooties. I may have done this in 1980s Maryland, but I learned it from my mother, who did it in 1950s Maryland.

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  2. Anonymous

    As kids we would sing circle cirlce dot dot know you got the cootie shot.

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  3. Gerald

    When I was a kid, we got rid of cooties with "cootie spray"(an imaginary aerosol can we pretended to spray on ourselves where whoever had cooties touched us)…

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  4. Hij

    When I was in 2nd grade, we said that cooties were a disease that turned people into the gender of the person they got it from, for example if Lily got cooties from Derek she’d turn into a boy. There were cootie shots too.

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  5. Agatha

    Oh boy, I remember telling the kids on the playground “Samus does NOT have cooties!” way too many times in the mid-late 80s. In our NYC school, the kids said it gave you purple polka dots and uncontrollable sneezing. We had the shots and the spray Gerald mentioned, we’d choreographed the spraying motion ahahaha

    Continuing from the Samus thing, when Metal Gear came out in 1988 a lot of the girls on the playground had a crush on Solid Snake, so there went the cooties haha no more purple polka dots.

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