Monday, December 01, 2014

Cooties and the uncontrollable urge to yell "Yack-A-Boo!!"

At our Thanksgiving table, the conversation turned to "poux".  How - I have no idea. Our subjects range far and wide, the participants hailing from various parts of the world and spanning 75 years from youngest to oldest. "Poux", a french word, translates to lice in English. Google translations are a great help during these rapid fire multi-lingual exchanges. Zuzu informed us that in her youth one could "get" poux in the movie theatres in Syria. If you had enough money you could sit in the balcony where it was less likely you'd be infected. Mac, from the Philippines, chimed in telling us that during his boyhood the movies cost one peso for the main floor, the lice free zone, or two pesos for the balcony where you were less likely to pick up the dreaded little parasites.

I recalled my own childhood school days.

"Mavis has cooties!", we would shout at poor Mavis who had the misfortune to live in a slightly dilapidated home. Mavis also wore thick glasses and in my memory had a slightly off-kilter affect which made her even more of a target. She may have been dsylexic or just shy. I remember her very soft voice and her timid demeanor. We pounced on her; she was the weakest in the herd.

If your family was poor or your Dad was a drunk or there was no Dad in the house, or you were different in any perceptible way, you would probably be picked on at school. There was no anonymity in those days. Every house in the neighborhood and its occupants was well known to all the other kids at school.  Furthermore there was no escape during the whole span of your school days. As we were all more or less stuck with each other through elementary, junior high and high school, the labels you got at the very beginning stuck with you until you left school or went to university or your family moved to someplace where you could finally blend in. I was a skinny minnie and sometimes a teacher's pet, sometimes not. One of my junior high school teachers thought I would end up in jail. Funny I remember that remark very vividly and not the other more positive speculation about my future. Every single one of us had a cross to bear. 

Sometimes when I hear people lament the fact that classrooms are too big and schools are impersonal I remember those days of no escape. I'm sure Mavis would have loved a bigger classroom and a little bit of distance from her tormenters.

As one always does these days, I looked up cooties on Wiki to see what they had to say. The first definition is rather mild and playful and of all things, imaginary. Not where I lived....cooties were real.

The Brits have the "dreaded Lurgi" as a kind of fun ailment and they lump it together with cooties. We had one of those mysterious illnesses in our family. On Sundays, before mass, my father used to come down with HIPOTICUTUS-IN-THE-HUDINACAPAP. Usually the miasma lifted about noon, when all church services were over and the cocktail hour was in shooting distance.

From Wiki:

Cooties is a fictional childhood disease used in the United States of AmericaCanada, and Australia as a rejection term and an infection tag game (such as Humans vs. Zombies). It is similar to the British dreaded lurgi, and to terms used in the Nordic countries, in Italy, and in New Zealand.[1] A child is said to "catch" cooties through close contact of an "infected" person or from a person of the opposite sex of the same age. Often the "infected" person is someone who is perceived as "different", such as being of the opposite sex, disabled or shy, or who has peculiar mannerisms.[2] Usually the phrase is used on girls by boys, as in "now you've got girl cooties". The phrase is most commonly used by children aged 4–10; however, it may be used by children older than 10 in a cruel, sarcastic or playful way.[3]
The word is thought to originate from the Austronesian term "kutu", meaning a parasitic biting insect. The earliest recorded uses of the term in English are by British soldiers during the First World War to refer to lice; the term was brought to America in the 1950s by military personnel coming back from service alongside the British in the South Pacific.[4] As with the British "dreaded lurgi", the cooties game developed during the early 1950s polio epidemic, and became associated with dirt and contagion.[1][5]

Yackaboo...I love this stamp!

The Dreaded Lurgy
Several of the words and phrases invented for the Goon Show entered common usage, the most famous being the word lurgi. In the episode "Lurgi Strikes Britain", Spike Milligan introduced the fictional malady of Lurgi, (sometimes spelled Lurgy) which has survived into modern usage to mean any miscellaneous or non-specific illness. The symptoms of Lurgi included the uncontrolable urge to cry 'Yack-a-boo,' though even during the episode the ailment proved to be an extortionate attempt to sell brass band musical instruments. Milligan was later to make up his own definition in Treasure Island According to Spike Milligan, where Jim Hawkins' mother describes it as "like brown spots of shit on the liver".

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