Cooties = Kudis?

Last night, after a good workout at the gym, Leen and I were on our way home when in the course of a conversation about post-workout close physical proximity I joked, “Well, it’s not like you have cooties.”

I expected her to ask me something like, “What the heck are cooties?” But instead she said, “I had that once when I was a kid, actually.” I was surprised to hear someone say they’ve actually had cooties, considering it’s an imaginary affliction, used by kids in the west as an excuse for shunning and/or teasing other kids. But Leen wasn’t talking about that. She was talking about the very real skin infection known in Malay as kudis.

So we talked about kudis for a bit and it seemed quite plausible to me that the imaginary western affliction known as cooties came from kudis. But I’ve been wrong about stuff like this before (after hearing several times from several sources that the word bogeyman had something to do with colonial powers’ fear of the Bugis, I wrote about it and was corrected by those who knew the word actually had English origins from way back; one of those who corrected me was a linguist who seemed really annoyed by the perpetuation of the Bugis myth). Whatever the case, I wanted to check it out.

The Wikipedia article on cooties is a mess. There’s no mention of Malaya/Malaysia, but that’s not necessarily a refutation of the kudis connection, considering how dodgy the etymology section of the article is. There is, however, an external link at the bottom of the article that goes to a page at The Straight Dope. There, in a piece from 1985, someone replies to a question about the origins of the word cooties by saying:

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.

So there is a known connection between cooties and kudis. A quick look at some entries at reveals this as well:

coot⋅ie1  [koo-tee] Show IPA
—noun Informal.
a louse, esp. one affecting humans, as the body louse, head louse, or pubic louse.
Also, cooty.

1910—15; perh. < Malay kutu biting body louse, with final syll. conformed to -ie

Another mention of Malay origins. Fair enough, but hold on: why is it attributed to the word kutu, which generally refers to lice and other wingless biting insects? Did cooties really come from kutu?

I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate (I’m no linguist, after all) that cooties did actually come from kudis, not from kutu. The association with lice may have something to do with the fact that a certain kind of kudis (kudis buta, known in English as scabies) does involve mites. People I’ve asked about kudis have all told me it’s not contagious, but scabies certainly is (at least through skin contact); if regular kudis is the same as impetigo (it is according to the Malay Wikipedia article on kudis), a bacterial infection, then it can be spread through contact as well. Ease of transmission aside, kudis would be repulsive enough that children afflicted with it would be shunned by their peers, or at the very least teased. We all know how cruel kids can be sometimes. Considering its repulsiveness, and its prevalence among children (like the imaginary cooties, kudis is more common in children than adults, whereas kutu refers to lice and fleas more generally), it makes sense that it would develop into an insult to be used against someone who might not even have the condition (“Stay away from her,” the class jock said, pointing at the nerdy girl, “she has kudis!”).

Cooties could very well be from kutu — after all, the people who wrote that dictionary thought so — but I’m not so sure. Even if kudis is the real origin of cooties, it might be something linguists already know — but again, I’m not so sure. I guess I’ll just have to keep scratching…er, digging.

4 thoughts on “Cooties = Kudis?

  1. Implosion says:

    Eh? I’ve always wondered the same thing….. Except I never knew that kudis was anything other than a boil- usually on the foot. :P
    And I thought cooties was something kids called their peers of the opposite sex.

  2. Jayz says:

    I know this is a creepy question but do you know the last name of the CB piano teacher u wrote about a few years ago or what year that happened?


    Jordan at Macvaysia has been wondering whether the English word cooties, which he defines as “an imaginary affliction, used by kids in the west as an excuse for shunning and/or teasing other kids,” might come from Malay kudis ‘scabies’ (Indonesian….

  4. [...] at Macvaysia has been wondering whether the English word cooties, which he defines as “an imaginary affliction, used by kids [...]

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