The Grammarphobia Blog

Did World War I give us cooties?

Q: I tuned in late to Pat’s last appearance on WNYC and just caught the tail end of her discussion about cooties. Did I hear right that World War I gave us the word?

A: When the word “cooties” first showed up, it referred to the lice that were rampant on the bodies of soldiers fighting in the trenches during World War I.

The earliest example of “cooties” in the Oxford English Dictionary appears in From the Fire Step, a 1917 memoir by Arthur Guy Empey about his experiences as an American serving in the British Army:

“ ‘Does the straw bother you, mate? It’s worked through my uniform and I can’t sleep.’ In a sleepy voice he answered, ‘That ain’t straw, them’s cooties.’ ”

The noun “cooties” was derived from a slightly earlier WWI word, “cooty,” an adjective meaning infested with lice and first recorded in 1915. The phrase “going cooty” meant getting lice and being quarantined for de-lousing.

It’s been suggested that these words—“cooty” and “cooties”—may have come from kutu, a word for louse in the Malay or Maori languages.

However, the OED says that “there is nothing in the early uses of any of these three words to make such an origin seem likely.”

The word “cooties,” as you know, is now used loosely (and often humorously) to mean imaginary germs or bugs.

We found a recent example in Notorious Nineteen (2012), a novel in Janet Evanovich’s series about the klutzy bounty hunter Stephanie Plum.

Lula, Stephanie’s sidekick, says one of the hazards of bounty hunting “is getting hospital cooties. We had to do some investigating in a hospital today, and I might have got the cooties.”

For dozens of years, the term “cooties” has also been the name of a children’s tag game that often pits boys against girls.

In “Tradition and Change in American Playground Language,” a 1973 paper in The Journal of American Folklore, Herbert and Mary Knapp describe how a designated “cootie carrier” spreads an imaginary infection by hand.

Children can be protected, the Knapps write, by inoculating themselves with a “cootie shot.” In different versions of the game, the inoculation includes such ritualistic expressions as “Circle, circle, dot, dot. Now you’ve got a cootie shot.”

“Almost all our informants who attended fifth grade in the fifties, sixties, and seventies recall ‘Cooties,’ ” the Knapps report in their paper. “The percentage of affirmative replies declines in the forties and thirties.”

Now, we’ll briefly mention some of the other World War I terms that Pat discussed in her appearance on the Leonard Lopate Show on July 16. (Thanks go to the OED for most of these etymologies.)

People refer to American soldiers of World War I as “Doughboys,” and to their British counterparts as “Tommies”—but in fact both terms preceded the war.

“Doughboy” was American Army slang for an infantryman as far back as the 1830s. And “Tommy” (short for a mythical “Thomas Atkins,” a generic name for a British soldier) dates from 1881, as we’ve written on our blog.

But plenty of words did originate during WWI, though many of them have since lost their wartime associations and acquired figurative meanings in everyday language.

A WWI term that’s acquired a wider meaning is “shell shock.” It was introduced in 1915 to describe a combat condition that we might now call post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s now also used more broadly to mean any kind of emotional upset.

The phrase “over the top” also originated in the trenches of 1915. To go “over the top” meant to go over the parapet of a trench and into battle. Later, in the 1930s, “over the top” took on a figurative usage and came to mean “to an exaggerated degree” or “beyond the limit.”

The very modern-sounding verb “liase” was first used by British officers in WWI and has gone on to be widely used (or misused, as many people think) in civilian life. We’ve written about the history of “liase” on our blog.

Another modern-sounding  term, “zero hour,” also came into use in 1915, when it meant the time at which a military operation was to begin.  Later it acquired an extended usage: the time at which any event is scheduled to take place.

“Zero in” also owes its origins to WWI, when it meant to adjust one’s rifle sights. It now means to focus or home in on something.

“Tailspin” is yet another example. When first recorded during the war, it meant a steep, uncontrolled, spinning descent of an aircraft with engine failure. But it now can mean any kind of rapid, out-of-control fall—as when having 22 errands on your list for the day sends you into a tailspin.

Here’s a term that many people don’t associate with WWI—“trench coat.” But when first recorded (in 1914), it meant a lined or padded waterproof coat worn by soldiers in the trenches.

As you might expect in an era marked by new ways of waging war, many of the words that emerged in 1914-18 have retained their original wartime meanings.

These include “air raid,” “anti-aircraft,” “gas mask,” “flame thrower,” “storm trooper,” and “tank”—originally a code word used in 1915 while the armored artillery vehicle was being secretly developed.

Another military word, “strafe” (1914), was derived from the German verb strafen (to punish), and was plucked from a famous German propaganda slogan, Gott strafe England! (“God punish England!”).

German also inspired “U-boat” (1914), meaning a German military submarine. The “u” in “U-boat” was from unterseeboten, the German word for the submarine.

Even on the home front, the war made changes in our language. The term “home front” itself came out of WWI, as did the nickname “Aussie” (for an Australian soldier), and the phrase “over there” (meaning Europe), which was popularized by the George M. Cohan song of that title.

A different category of WWI words includes those that (like “Doughboy” and “Tommy”) were around before but didn’t become household words until the war brought them into the news.

Examples include “Zeppelin.” While the airship was developed at the turn of the century, the word didn’t come into common use until the Germans used Zeppelins in bombing raids in 1914.

“Dogfight,” too, had been around in figurative usage as a word for a struggle or melee. But in 1918 “dogfight” was first used to mean an air battle between warplanes.

Those dogfights may have been fought by “aces.” That word, too, had been in earlier use to mean someone who excels. But it wasn’t used until 1916 to mean a daring flier—like a pilot or gunner—who brings down lots of enemy planes.

“Submarine” had also been around before WWI, but it was a mere novelty until the war at sea made it a household word. Similarly, the phrase “cannon fodder” was around earlier but emerged from obscurity in WWI and is now forever associated with that war.

Another word dreaded by troops—“shrapnel”—was first recorded in 1914 in the sense of fragments from shells or bombs. But it came from an earlier sense of the word. In the 19th century, a “Shrapnel” (named for its British inventor, Henry Shrapnel) was a type of hollow shell containing bullets and a charge.

Even the way people referred to the war has an interesting history.

Early on, in 1914, it was called “the Great War,” and was sometimes referred to as “the war that will end war,” a phrase credited to H. G. Wells (it was the title of a book he published that year).

The phrase “First World War” was coined toward the war’s end, in September 1918.

But the name we probably use most often, “World War I,” was first used by Time magazine in its issue of Sept. 18, 1939, shortly after Germany invaded Poland and ushered in the next world war.  Only the previous week, Time had become the first to use the term “World War II” in print.

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