Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Mon Jul 6 15:33:36 UTC 2009

At 10:45 AM -0400 7/6/09, Jonathan Lighter wrote:
>I can picture the "device," but IIRC in my Manhattan elementary school it
>was used to offer advice and tell fortunes, not to catch "cooties" in any
>sense of the word.  Possibly it was called a "Chinese fortune cookie," which
>it resembled in shape. But that may simply be my imagination playing cruel
>tricks on all of us.
>The seven-year old spirit medium would inscribe a pair of messages on the
>inside, which would appear alternately as his (usually her) fingertips
>opened and closed the folded
>The supplicant would call an odd or even number and the medium would open
>and close the mystical folds accordingly, then reveal the visible message.
>"Yes" or "No" questions worked best. In theory the device could direct all
>of your future actions, so it was important to use a medium you could trust.

Yes, that sounds right to me as well, and there was a chant that
accompanied the manipulation of the device.  It would also tell you
your (or whoever's) favorite color and other such information.
Fortunes were part of it, but not cooties.  If they were (sometimes?)
called "cootie catchers" (Jon's "fortune cookies" does ring a distant
bell) I probably processed it as an opaque label, and certainly
didn't make any connection with lice.  As I mentioned earlier, I
never thought of a cootie in the singular; cooties in the plural were
as abstract as the willies or the creeps.  IIRC.


>On Mon, Jul 6, 2009 at 9:45 AM, Joel S. Berson <Berson at> wrote:
>>  ---------------------- Information from the mail header
>>  -----------------------
>>  Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>>  Poster:       "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>
>>  Subject:      Re: cooties
>>  The term too -- IIRC, "cootie catcher" was the name in the West Bronx also.
>>  Joel
>>  At 7/5/2009 09:28 AM, Bill Palmer wrote:
>>  >Joel describes what we in elementary school in east Texas called a "cootie
>>  >catcher". Sounds like the concept is widespread, if not the term.
>>  >
>>  >
>>  >Bill Palmer
>>  >
>>  >----- Original Message -----
>>  >From: "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>
>>  >Sent: Sunday, July 05, 2009 9:03 AM
>>  >Subject: Re: cooties
>>  >
>>  >
>>  >>---------------------- Information from the mail
>>  >>header -----------------------
>>  >>Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>>  >>Poster:       "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>
>>  >>Subject:      Re: cooties
>>  >>-------------------------------------------------------------------------------
>>  >>
>>  >>At 7/4/2009 10:08 PM, Laurence Horn wrote:
>>  >>>Seems like most dictionaries, at least the online ones, do gloss it
>>  >>>as 'body louse'.  When I was growing up, cooties were always in the
>>  >>>plural, they were invisible, and they were things one accused another
>>  >>>of having or giving.  I think I assumed they were distinct from lice,
>>  >>>which were real, and from other actual critters.  Hard to recall,
>>  >>>though.
>>  >>
>>  >>In my elementary school (or was it junior high school) days, there
>>  >>was a prank.  One (that is, others) constructed a square piece of
>>  >>paper so that the face had four triangular flaps (imagine an X
>>  >>inscribed in a square).  These flaps were operated from the reverse
>>  >>side by four fingers such that a pair of flaps on opposite sides
>>  >>could be opened simultaneously, displaying the surface of paper
>>  >>beneath them.  The surface of the paper below one pair of flaps was
>>  >>left blank; on the other pair of surfaces were drawn small, repulsive
>>  >>mites.  The Other said to one, "I need to check for cooties",
>>  >>displayed the two unmarked surfaces, put the device against one's
>>  >>head with a grasping motion, took it off, and displayed the other two
>>  >>surfaces.
>>  >>
>>  >> From that moment forth (or perhaps even earlier), I always
>>  >>associated cooties with the head.  (Although ringworm was the
>  > >>condition for which schoolchildren were sent home in my day.)
>>  >>
>>  >>Joel
>>  >>
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