One of the more bizarre memories I have of elementary school back in the 1960s were the times when entire classes were marched en masse to the nurse’s office where we would be examined for head lice.


It was cool to get out of class for 30 minutes or so, even if it meant for our school nurse to hunt for lice on our scalps.


And that’s what she would do in a dark room of her office with a handheld Wood’s Lamp/Light—an ultraviolet or black light—to check for head lice.


It was the weirdest thing, sitting there in that dark room, as our portly school nurse in her heavily starched nurse’s uniform (that always seemed to crackle when she moved) took that handheld ultraviolet light and scanned our heads for lice. Before each one of us had to enter that room, there was usually a fair amount of jostling and joking among us waiting in line, about who was going to literally be caught with “cooties.”


(As far as I can recall, none of kids in my class ever had lice or “cooties” even though some kids were suspected of being potential cootie carriers.)


Head lice are still a problem, except now there is a new bug in town.


“As school begins, health officials and parents across the country are bracing for this year’s bout of what some call ‘super lice,’ drug-resistant critters that fend off nearly all pesticides, even as experts say better treatments for the ancient, annoying condition may be waiting in the wings. 


Researchers have been warning for years that head lice in the U.S. and around the world are developing immunity to the strong insecticides used in over-the-counter and prescription shampoos. It takes just three to five years for the bugs to adapt to a new product, despite claims to the contrary by the manufacturers, noted Shirley C. Gordon, an associate professor at Florida Atlantic University who studies persistent head lice.”


Yup, sounds like a big cootie problem.


And just in case you are interested (I know I was) the term “cooties” –as far as its English usage—can be traced from the American occupation of the Philippines, in 1898-1945, and before that to British soldiers’ presence in Malaysia.


“In most Austronesian languages (e.g. Malaysian and many Philippine languages such as Tagalog) the term for head lice, lice or fleas of any kind, is kuto. Foreign troops had ample opportunity to become familiar with the term and made a slang pluralized form (“cooties”) of kuto.”


How the term subsequently entered the vocabulary of grade school children is unknown; perhaps it could have been spoken by a service member home on leave and the name just caught on. From its original meaning of head or body lice, the term evolved into a purely imaginary stand-in for anything repulsive.


Cooties were so popular (in a different way, mind you) there was even a game that was sort of like a Mr. Potato Head where you assembled plastic legs, torsos, and antennae into cooties.


Ah, life was so much simpler when I was a child—one day our school nurse scanned a blacklight over our heads looking for head lice and the next day we played with our plastic cooties.