The other day the Jersey Girl and I were driving to lunch in her car when I noticed a folded paper object on the dashboard. Made by one of her kids, it was something you might remember from childhood. You insert your thumbs and index fingers into slots, open and close them based on the colors or numbers or other indicators written on the outside, and then lift up one of the interior folds to deliver a secret message found underneath — at least one of which typically made reference to “cooties.”
“Hey, you’ve got a cootie catcher!” I remarked. The JG looked puzzled, shrugged, and responded, “I don’t think that’s what they call it.”
What, no concept of “cooties” in American childhood anymore? No more mindless running around, laughing and trying to dodge and avoid the kid who had “cooties” and, with a simple tag, could pass them on to you? No discussions among young boys about girls having “cooties”? No generalized lack of understanding of what “cooties” were supposed to be, or why they had that name, but just a fervent belief that you didn’t want to have them, whatever the heck they were? Is “cooties” one of those stupid but fun childhood things that has hit the cutting room floor in the modern, ultra-sensitive, PC world?
Then I stumbled across an article that sought to bring some real analysis to bear on the “cooties” issue. The Smithsonian applied scientific rigor to the concept of “cooties,” and take a careful look at a key question: if “cooties” were real, what actual disease would they be? After looking at the key attributes of “cooties” — being instant communicable through physical contact, common, and highly contagious, but with no outward signs of debilitating disease — and eliminating candidates like pinkeye, plague, and leprosy, The Smithsonian concluded that meningitis came closest.
And notably, The Smithsonian also concluded that the concept of “cooties” among children has some value, because it gives kids “a decent, albeit rudimentary, approximation for how disease functions” and allows them “to learn about infectious disease in a semi-sanitary, innocuous manner.” So, “cooties” is a good thing? There’s a first time for everything.