In a kid’s world, cooties and other similar contagions may not be real—but they’re deadly serious. The North American children’s lore of cooties is “a social contaminant that pass[es] from one child to another, a form of interpersonal pollution.” The term “cootie” might have been taken from a British colonial word for lice popularized by returning World War I soldiers, possibly derived from a Malay word, kutu, meaning “a parasitic biting insect.” It might be lice, it might be germs, but it’s invisible, and you may be in danger of catching it.Yes, children are like adults in taking actual physical dangers and making them into a metaphor for social undesirables.
Folklorists Iona and Peter Opie describe a similar game from Britain called “The Dreaded Lurgi,” while in Japan children have developed their own prophylactic treatments for such a social contagion, called engacho. Similar medical methods, recorded terms such as cootie vaccination and cootie immunization, can also be found for cooties, involving special hand gestures or perhaps pretend injections. Children who play this game learn and absorb concepts familiar to a public health emergency, but on their own strange terms. Because cooties can be a serious problem. . . .
Though it may have a real impact on children’s social distancing, it’s hard to pin down what cooties is exactly, because conceptually, it needs to be many things. Children have vaguely described cooties as “They give you bad germs that can kill you” or “if you don’t like a person and you touch them, you can get cooties.” It’s not unlike an invisible virus, in that no one is safe. No kid knows whether they’ll get it, or whether they’ll be accused of giving someone cooties.
Wednesday, May 6, 2020