From Herbert Knapp and Mary Knapp, "Tradition and change in American Playground Language", The Journal of American Folklore 86(340): 131-141 (1973):

A second instance of an enduring, fairly national playground term is "Cooties," which is both the name of a tag game and part of the game's terminology. Often this game pits the sexes against each other. However, it seems more common for an individual "cootie carrier" to be designated. The game may be played more or less in the spirit of fun, but it is often a means of scapegoating. A child who is habitually referred to as "having cooties" is likely to be the poorest, dirtiest, most psychologically troubled child in the classroom.

"Cooties" are usually spread by hand. After accidentally brushing against someone whom one dislikes, one wipes one's hand on the shoulder of an unsuspecting third party and shouts, "You've got __'s cooties," whereupon everyone standing nearby runs away in order to avoid the "cootie carrier." The child who passes on the "cooties" may protect himself by shouting, "No gives back," or by giving himself a "cootie shot," which inoculates him. The original source of the infection does not participate in the ensuing tag game, though he hears his name shouted repeatedly if the game is played outdoors. It is also played in the classroom. One informant said "Cooties" was played "especially in class." A child asks to sharpen his pencil or is asked to go to the board; along the way he "gives someone cooties." Less frequently, "cooties" are passed on by showering a child with bits of wadded paper that are exploded from an envelope made from a sheet of notebook paper and folded in such a way that it can be pulled apart easily.

At one school in the Canal Zone, students reported that in the early sixties they had a "Cootie Queen" who reigned year after year. As she approached, a child would shout, "Watch out! Here comes the Cootie Queen!" Children nearby would cross their fingers and, if the Queen were walking on the sidewalk, leap onto the grass. A child standing on the same kind of surface that the Queen stood on would get her "cooties." The word "Queen" was also reported from a school in Georgia. There, however, the game was girls against boys, initiated by the girls and played in the vicinity of the jungle gym. Fleeing boys would shout, "Queen of the kissing cooties!" In a New Hampshire school, the boys had the "cooties" and chased the girls.

"Cooties" seems to be one of the more popular playground games in Monroe County. In response to the question, "Do the children in your school say 'cooties'?" 302 students replied "Yes"; only 36 "no." (We replaced a less directive question about "Cooties" with the Yes/No question cited above because the orig- inal question sometimes elicited personal comment about the "cootie carrier," and we did not want our respondents to interpret our interest as approval.) Students volunteered such comments as "Boy, do they!" and "Yes, definitely." Some children seemed a little ashamed of the practice. In one classroom in which 17 children responded "Yes" and only three "No," one child wrote, tactfully, "Some do, not many." Three fifth grade respondents volunteered the information that "giving cooties" was restricted to grades one, two, and three. However, "cooties" were rife in a sixth grade class in the same school that one of these respondents attended.

The game was also reported in the seventies from Kentucky and the Canal Zone. In the sixties, it was reported from Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming; in the fifties, from Florida, Indiana, and New Mexico; in the forties, from Kansas, Missouri, and New Mexico; and, in the thirties, from Indiana. Almost all our informants who attended fifth grade in the fifties, sixties, and seventies recall "Cooties." The percentage of affirmative replies declines in the forties and thirties.

Touch games, which are apparently similar, are played in many parts of the world. However, the social function of these games may be different in each case. The Opies reported that in New Zealand a boy tagged by a girl might be taunted with the cry, "You've got girl fleas." In Valencia, a tag game was called "Tu portes la puse"; in Massa, Italy, the game was called "Peste." The child who passed on the infection in Madagascar in I883 was known as a leper. (American schoolchildren in our study defined "cooties" as "boys' " or "girls' germs," as "a contaminated bug," and as "something that kills you.") The Opies listed twenty-six different names for this type of game in Britain: "Lurgy," "Minge," "Germ," "The Plague," "Fever," "The Poo," "Poisonous Fungi," "Lodgers," and so on, but not "Cooties."

While "Cooties" has not been reported from Britain, the word itself was once British military slang. It has survived as part of the active vocabulary of American schoolchildren long after it dropped out of the active vocabulary of the American adults who must have transmitted it to the United States. Partridge suggested that kutu was a common term for any kind of louse throughout Polynesia and that the word was picked up by the British navy. By 1915, the word had been passed on to the military. H. L. Mencken reported that "cooties" was one of the few words that the soldiers of the A.E.F. borrowed from the British army during World War One. Apparently "Cooties" started to become part of the American playground culture in the years following that war. Four informants who attended elementary schools in Texas, Missouri, and Kansas between I900 and I920 were questioned about "Cooties." None recalled such a game, though they remembered many others. Negative responses do not, of course, indicate that "Cooties" was not played in the United States during the early part of this century, but we have no evidence that it was.