MARCH
2007

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

3-22-07

Who Says Cooties Can't Be Fun?

We humans ought to feel honored. We have our own special brand of lice! These lice live only on humans and are appropriately named "human lice." Some folks might consider having lice named after us a dubious honor. After all, associating with lice, even in name, is distasteful to many people.

We aren't as special as we might we might like to think, at least when it comes to lice. All kinds of other animals have lice named after them as well. There are cattle lice, hog lice, dog lice, rodent lice, chicken lice and turkey lice. Scientists call lice "host-specific animals." That means a particular species of louse will live on only one type of host and no other. So, dog lice are found on dogs, cattle lice on cattle and, well, you get the idea.

In spite of our disdain for insects called lice, we humans have lived much of our history with these six-legged ectoparasites living on us. Medical historians trace lice infestations back 9,000 years or so. The Greek naturalist Pliny mentioned lice in the first century A.D. In the 1500s, the Aztec emperor Montezuma paid people to pick nits, the eggs of lice, off his subjects. Culpeper, in 1681, recommended tobacco juice to kill lice on English children's heads.

Mostly, lice just make us itch and do not pose a real health problem. However, lice can transmit the causal agent of the human disease typhus. Mostly, this disease becomes a problem when people are confined closely together without the opportunity to wash or delouse clothing. Typhus is a fatal disease, and, historically, outbreaks occurred in crowed jails or among troops during wars. That was the case during World War I when the disease was responsible for deaths of untold numbers of soldiers.

t was during WWI, that the human louse picked up the name "cootie." Cootie was a British naval slang word for louse, based on the Malay term "kutu," which was used for any parasitic, biting insect. Another slang term that originated about the same time for the louse was "seam squirrel."

The name "cootie" exists today in a Veterans of Foreign Wars military order, a popular children's game, and as a specific origami creation. The Military Order of the Cooties was created in 1920 by Fred Madden and F.L. Gransbury and was modeled after the Imperial Order of the Dragon, which was associated with the United Spanish American War Veterans. The new, fun-loving auxiliary established Madden as its first seam squirrel (commander) and adopted an official uniform of red pants, ruffled white shirt and a lace-trimmed red vest with a gold-outlined, bug-like creature on the back.

One of the major goals of the Cooties has been to entertain veteran patients at hospitals, hence the slogan "Keep 'em Smiling in Beds of White." Today, there are about 37,000 Cooties practicing their characteristic offbeat brand of humor, while providing thousands of dollars to support education and local VA hospitals and nursing homes.

In 1948, Herb Schaper, a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, whittled out of wood an insect body, a head, six legs, two eyes, two antennae and a proboscis. These parts could be put together to form an insect. Schaper then conjured up a children's game known as "Cootie." The game includes enough body parts to construct four insects and is played by rolling a die to determine which insect part you can acquire. The first player to build a complete insect wins.

Schaper went on to make 40,000 wooden Cootie games under the Schaper Game Co. brand. Eventually, Cooties were constructed using plastic parts. By 1978, more than 30 million games had been produced. In 1987, Milton Bradley acquired the Schaper games, including Cootie and put a smile on the insect face.

Another interesting use of the term cootie is in origami cootie catchers. The first use was probably in Japan in the 1600s. It is not clear when the idea showed up in the Western world but, by the 1940s, cootie catchers were being folded and used in the United States. The cootie catcher is a trihexaflexagon (six sides and three faces). It sometimes has dots drawn on one of the faces, and the joke is to collect cooties from a person and then show them how many were captured.

Even though we can't entirely keep lice from feeding on us, we can still use the thought of them to create a smile in a military hospital. Or to teach our children their first board game. Or to play a trick on a friend. Who says lice are no fun?

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox