Cooties are a strange part of childhood
culture. These pretend bugs or germs have been around on the playground
for nearly a century. Cooties are basically a physical realization of a stigma. Children (generally) know that they aren't real
, but they respond to the mention of them as if they were very real and very serious. Like any oral sort of folk tradition
, the specifics of the Cootie disease vary throughout time and from place to place. There do seem to be only two distinct types of cootie manifestation
The first is the one Derfel covered above; we'll call it the "giggle cootie." These blush-causing little buggers are transmitted through icky contact with the opposite sex. Girls have cooties so boys shouldn't touch them, boys have cooties so girls shouldn't touch them, girls who love boys a lot catch cooties... this infection can appear in any number of ways. It mysteriously disappears with the onset of puberty.
The second, and certainly more severe form of cooties is the "outcast cootie." Typically, the outcast cootie is found in new kids, fat kids, quiet ugly strange poor smelly shy dumb gross sickly stuttering handicapped kids... the list goes on. In these situations, the fact that "so-and-so, they've got cooties," told the other kids to avoid the "infectious" child for fear that themselves might catch the disease as well. This resulted in a sort of social quarantine, and was a very handy way to separate the "normal" children from the "bad" ones.
Cooties may only be cured by time. Usually they are merely the distraction of one recess hour and are then forgotten. However during the time that the outbreak is occurring, besides avoiding contact with the infected individuals at all cost, it is imperative to make sure that you and all your friends have their "cootie shots," a form of vaccine. The vaccine involves drawing on your own arm with your fingernail to leave slight marks, and reciting the accompanying rhyme. The rhyme goes:
circle circle dot dot
now I got my cootie shot
circle circle square square
now I've got it everywhere
circle circle knife knife
now I've got it all my life
On your arm you would draw circles, dots, squares, and lines (for the knife) as you said the rhyme. Now you were relatively safe from cooties for as long as anyone remembered that you had vaccinated yourself.
I'd be willing to bet that anyone who grew up in the United States (I have no knowledge of cootiedom in other countries) had something of the cootie virus appear in their early days of interacting with others. More than likely, you also played with certain multi-colored, buildable plastic version of these bugs. These would be the Cootie Bug Game, by Milton Bradley (a division of the Hasbro Corporation). The manufacturer describes it as:
"The original build-a-cootie-bug game. Kooky and colorful - what a hoot! Start with a body, a head, and a hat. Lickin' lips, antennae, twirly tongue...look at that! Hundreds of ways to build'em. They're never the same. Finish your Cootie first and you win the game."
The first "cootie bug" was whittled by hand by a letter carrier for the U.S. Post Office, Mr. Herb Schaper, in 1948. The "legend" goes that in the first few years Schaper built more than 40,000 of these wooden cootie games by hand. Three years later, more than 1,200,000 were produced with the aid of machinery. By the 30th anniversary of the game (1978 for the math-challenged among us) more than 30 million sets of the game had been bought by children worldwide. In 1987 Milton Bradley Co acquired the Cootie game, and its popularity continues today.
The game is amazingly simple - it is recommended for ages 3 and up. Each Cootie box comes with enough parts to make 4 complete Cootie bugs. Two to four people can play the game at a time. As far as I can tell there are currently 17 body parts to one cootie bug, but the ten-year-old copy of the game sitting in my closet only has 13. Today (by my reckoning) a bug consists of a body, a head, 2 antennea, a hat, a bowtie, 2 eyes, a tongue, teeth and lips (?), and 6 legs.
The Cootie die has dots instead of the Arabic numbers 1-6. Technically to play the game the players take turns rolling the die. You must first roll both a one to get your body and a two to get your head. Next (this goes in accordance with my out-dated version) you may collect in any order until you have amassed two antennae (3), two eyes (4), one tongue (5) and a whopping six legs (6, and you’d better learn how to make that die land 6-side-up or you’re in for a long Cootie game). Players take turns, and the game continues until some lucky soul completes their Cootie bug.
Now to be quite honest, I don't think the game itself was played by the rules very often. All that anyone I've talked to can remembered is playing with the parts of the bugs, sort of like giant Lego action figures, or insectoid Mr. Potato Heads. Theoretically though, there was a "game" to play with the Cooties. And as fas the quote above from the manufacturer: this is a chirpy little piece of advertising, and I understand the usefulness of hyperbole, but considering that only the bodies and heads of cooties are different colors (all the other parts are yellow), there are really only 16 different ways to build a complete cootie. And even if there were truely "hundreds" of ways to build them, the bit about "They're never the same!" is still negated. Ah me, ever the persnickety one.
The last exciting part to the basic cootie lore is the mighty "Cootie Catcher." This, however, is so well covered in the write-up there by graymalkn that I am going to leave it well enough alone.
Happy Cooties! (Or Traumatic Cooties, as the case may have been.)
Illumina's Great Theory on the timing of Cooties: "I was just reading your excellent cootie writeup and was struck by the though that, if the playground game has been around since the early 20th century, then it seems to have arisen shortly after the germ theory of disease really took hold. Makes sense."
Oolong seyz: "For what it's worth, the English equivalent of cooties is the Lurgies. I think it was always particularly associated with members of the opposite sext hough." (Now I assume by "English" he means "How they say it in that there England." But being from the South, what do I know? Lurgies it is!)
Now the true name of the game I've described is "Cootie," which is where it possibly should have been noded;
but I decided to keep it simple and put all pertinent cootie information in this write-up.
(there is currently no node at all for "cootie")
http://www.iamlost.com/features/cooties -->This is HILARIOUS! My advice to you is that you go read it right now!