recess radio program

08/01/06
Those Tenacious Cooties
    by Lisa Dusenberry

"Circle, circle, dot, dot, now you have a cootie shot!" Using your index finger, draw a circle on your arm two times and poke the center twice. You may not know it, but you have just been immunized from a strange disease unique to the United States, cooties. Cooties and cootie "shots" are rituals of American childhood that are transmitted from generation to generation through playground culture. But where did the idea of cooties come from?

The exact origin of cooties is unknown. Wikipedia suggests that the word cooties was derived from the Malay word for biting insect and was used in World War One to refer to body lice. Cooties also might have come from a term with similar meaning, "kutu," used in many Pacific Island languages. Or perhaps cooties entered our vocabulary through an Americanization of the Tagalog word "kuto" of the same meaning, adopted by US soldiers stationed in the Philippines. But the term cooties has taken on a life of its own as part of American children's culture.

Cooties may be imaginary, but they are highly contagious! Normally, one gets cooties from contact with the other gender and must be properly immunized against the threat. The only other way to rid yourself of cooties is to give them to someone else. Cooties have spawned not only the cootie "shot" but other children's games. Children can race to build their own insect-like cootie in Milton Bradley's game Cootie. Or they can make their own cootie catcher. Originally, the cootie catcher was a folded piece of paper that you could open and close using your fingers. You would leave one of the inner sides blank and you would draw a bunch of small dots on the opposing side. The blank side was shown to your chosen victim. Then, after running the cootie catcher through their hair, you opened it up to reveal the cootie dots on the opposing side. You could then take all the credit for having saved your friend from cooties!

The cootie catcher has now been popularized, not as a way to catch cooties, but as a fortune telling game for children. Pick a color, pick a number, and the cootie catcher will tell you who you will marry or how much money you will make. That's a far cry from its original purpose of catching those tenacious cooties. But you should know, the cootie shot only protects you from getting other people's cooties, not those robust airborne ones. You have to have a second treatment with "circle, circle, square, square, now you have it everywhere" to be truly safe from this playground threat.

Copyright 2006 Lisa Dusenberry

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Friday, 30-Jun-2006 16:27:22 EDT


"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."