What is the origin of the word “cooties”?

Dear Cecil:

Can you tell me the origin of the slang word "cooties," as in "OOOooooh! Melvin touched me! I have Melvin's cooties!" Is this an American vulgarism, or is it a well-known expression in the English-speaking world?

Cecil replies:

Dear Jolene:

Cooties in the sense of “an intangible profusion of vileness emanating from an especially loathsome individual” is probably peculiar to this country. However, cooties in the original sense of body lice is known to most speakers of English. According to Eric Partridge, whose knowledge of things linguistic is almost as awesome as my knowledge of things in general, the word cooties, and probably the reality as well, was picked up by sailors from the Malayans, who had a similar word meaning dog lice. A possibly related term is kutu, a Polynesian word meaning lice of any kind.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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