Wednesday, May 6, 2020


Ah, childhood:
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.

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.
Yes, children are like adults in taking actual physical dangers and making them into a metaphor for social undesirables.


Shadow said...

Personally, I thought cooties were the evil germs (with evil smiles) that caused tooth decay, because when I grew up fluoride and toothbrushing were all the rage in elementary school.

This is way too serious and socially contaminating for me. We were kids. We came up with all sorts of names to label friends and frenemies. It was like a game: tag, now you have the cooties. Sometimes it was a joke; other times it wasn't. But that's the thing about children's games, they are instructive but not always nice.

pootrsox said...

We used to make cootie catchers. They're identical to those simplistic semi-origami fortune tellers.

Start with a good-sized square of paper. Fold in 4ths so there is a clear indication of the center. Then unfold.

Now, fold the four corners in so that the tips meet at the center.

Turn over so the tips are on the bottom. Fold the four corners in to the center as before.

Now, with this second side facing up, fold into 4th as you did in step 1.

Put your thumb and first 3 fingers under the flaps you created on the first step.

You now have your cootie catcher. When you move thumb and ring finger vertically away from each other, you see one set of surfaces inside. When you move thumb and index finger horizontally away from the other two fingers, you see the other set of surfaces.

Now, draw some cooties (dots, mini-bugs, whatever) on one of those surface sets, leaving the other set blank.

You approach your victim and show him/her the infected side first, then touch the catcher to the victim and open it up to the other side. "See! Now you're infected with cooties!"

Or reverse the order and "remove" cooties from someone.

NOTE: this dates back to my childhood in the 50's... there were also "He loves me; he loves me not" versions for junior high and high school.

Shadow said...

How socially contaminating! I like it.