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Q From Sarah: Children always say they’re afraid of cooties, and I’ve always been curious where the word came from.

A Ah, yes, playground taunts. How they take me back. Though, since I’m British, nobody accused me in my young days of having cooties, because the word is not known on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. American children, however, have been using the word for several generations.

The original cooties were very real and extremely nasty, since the word was first applied to body lice. It’s a slang term intimately (and I mean that sincerely) associated with the military in World War One. It’s first recorded in print in 1917, but is presumably older.

Several American subscribers have told me that they remember the term being used among children for head lice back in the 1920s. Even in the 1950s and 1960s, the word was still common in this literal sense (and, of course, it's still known as such). There was also the cootie catcher, a folded paper shape that you could use to pretend you had discovered cooties on a schoolmate. By the 1970s, though, its literal associations were beginning to be become diffused to the point that the word could also refer to some generalised repulsive state that only people you don’t like ever get.

The word sounds Scots, and indeed at one time cootie was a good Scots adjective applied to farmyard fowls with feathered legs (it’s probably from cuit, ankle); a cootie could at one time also be a small wooden dish used in the kitchen for various purposes. But cootie in the sense of louse doesn’t seem to be linked to these (and great powers of invention would be needed to derive our sense from either of them).

The most common theory is that it is from Malay, where kutu is a louse, though no dictionary I have here feels able to say for sure how it got from there into the slang of soldiers who had to suffer the louse-ridden trenches of the European conflict. It’s persuasively said, though, that it was borrowed by American soldiers in the Philippines early in the twentieth century — either from Malay or more probably a related word in Tagalog — who then took it with them to Europe.

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Page created 26 Jul 2003