Cooters and hooters

Dear Dr. Strong Language,
Can we get cooties from a cooter?

Etymologically? No.

But if you do get cooties from a cooter, there’s a good chance they’ll be crabs.

See, cooties was the term members of the military used in World War I to refer to the body lice that ravaged the soldiers, compounding the misery of the trenches and transmitting diseases like typhus. Some etymologists have proposed that this sense of cooties came from kutu, the word for louse in Malay and Maori, but it more likely came from cooty, a British regionalism meaning “infested with lice” and referring originally to coots—waterfowl (such as auks)—that were perceived as dirty and teeming with parasites. This sense of coot is quite old, coming from the Middle English cote, and the Oxford English Dictionary has a citation of “as lousy as a coot” from 1864.

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 10.48.19 AM
An article detailing delousing plans, from the Journal of Allied Dental Societies, December 1918, p. 525.

When soldiers went home at the end of the war, they took with them their cooties despite concerted delousing efforts, and the word entered general parlance, accounting for the spike in usage around 1920:

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 5.15.07 PM

Although this sense has stuck around in some regions, by the mid-twentieth century, North American children had co-opted the word to mean an imaginary germ carried by other kids, usually of the opposite sex. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation of this sense is from Eleanor Estes’s 1951 book Ginger Pye—“All the boys and girls in Grade Five said Addie Egan had cooties and she really did not have cooties at all.”—and the OED acknowledges that this quote could be transitional from the earlier, lousy sense.

Cooter, in contrast, is much newer. Besides being the name of a Dukes of Hazzard character and city in Missouri, cooter has only in the last few decades taken on the meaning of female genitalia. People in the southern United States, beginning with African Americans in the early 1800s, use cooter to refer to a few species of box turtles and tortoises. The word may have come from kuta, meaning turtle to the Bambara and Malinke people of West Africa. Snapping turtle began to be used in the South as a eurotophobic euphemism for vagina, and cooter eventually took on the same meaning, probably beginning in the mid-seventies, although the earliest citation for this usage in Connie Eble’s dictionary of campus slang is from 1986. In the same dictionary, cooter is also said to mean a female—“cooter madness: girl crazy”—a cite from 1977.

Interestingly, according to the OED, “to coot” is an intransitive verb (now obsolete) referring to the copulation of tortoises:

The Tortoises…coot for fourteen daies together. (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1667)

The temporal and geographical distance makes a relationship between to coot and cooter improbable, but it’s quite the coincidence.

A few other euphemisms for female genitals start with the [ku] sound: coochie came from the hootchy-kootchy, an erotic dance from the late nineteenth century, giving us the shortened cooch, from the mid-twentieth century. Cooze and coozie (related to, and sometimes used with, floozie) have also been used to describe a promiscuous woman or her genitals. (Beer koozies, although also “sheaths,” are allegedly just a distortion of cozy. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.) Cooter, cooch, coozie—are all of these [ku] cunts coincidental, or might they suggest a phonaestheme?

Neither the OED nor Merriam-Webster lists the vagina sense of cooter, but the latter does list the breast sense of hooter, which seems to be roughly the same age but has a much more transparent etymology: car horns, being things that hoot, are hooters, and car horns look vaguely like breasts:

Are you aroused yet?

In the early 1970s, hooters was mostly still innuendo. When Ted Tally (who went on to win an Academy Award for the screenplay of The Silence of the Lambs) wrote a two-act play called Hooters in 1978 about two nineteen-year-old males who try to pick up a couple of slightly older women over a weekend in Cape Cod, reviewers at the time still felt the need to define the term. By the time Hooters restaurants were launched in 1983, the word was pretty well skunked and had lost all subtlety.

According to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, people in the 1980s also used hooter to refer to a woman with large breasts, much as they used cooter and coozie to talk about both a woman and a part of her body. These are examples of synecdoche, a figure of speech in which a part is used to refer to a whole. This particular brand of synecdoche, which many consider sexist, happens with tedious regularity—for instance, when people talk about “chasing pussy” or “getting some sweet ass.” (Synecdoche for general insults like dick, asshole, and cunt is related but not quite the same.) So if you reduce a woman to no more than a cooter and some hooters, don’t be surprised if she snaps back and makes some noise. She’s got etymology on her side.

22 thoughts on “Cooters and hooters

  1. iwillnotliveinvain September 18, 2015 / 8:38 am

    This is interesting… and timely. Just last week some women from my church got in an uproar about my new book “That Boy Gave Me Cooties” because they automatically read the title as a straight up sexual reference (thinking Cooties meant Vagina apparently… though I don’t even know how “The Boy Gave Me Vagina” even makes sense…smh.) Anyway, nice to get some background on these particular terms at this particular time 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. duplicatorbooks September 18, 2015 / 12:19 pm

    Nice article, Iva, and thanks for introducing me to phonesthemes 🙂

    Seems like a certain bird’s name deserves use as slang for (male or female) genitalia – the cuckoo… then again, maybe it already is, and my chaste mind has never encountered it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Iva Cheung September 18, 2015 / 4:57 pm

      Maybe the genitals of an unfaithful wife?

      Liked by 1 person

    • Iva Cheung September 18, 2015 / 5:21 pm

      I urge caution when trying this with unfamiliar women.


    • Iva Cheung September 18, 2015 / 5:10 pm

      I’m pretty sure I learned everything I know from Calvin & Hobbes.


  3. Nancy Friedman September 18, 2015 / 6:32 pm

    Coincidentally, a new comic horror movie called Cooties opens today in U.S. theaters. It has a promising cast (Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill, Elijah Wood, Jack McBrayer); the plot, according to the NY Times review, involves “tainted chicken nuggets served at an elementary school [that] turn its students into zombies.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Iva Cheung September 18, 2015 / 6:33 pm

      Or maybe not so coincidentally… 😉


  4. sesquiotic September 18, 2015 / 7:32 pm

    I was hoping you might get into poon-tang too…


    • sesquiotic September 18, 2015 / 7:32 pm

      …and maybe wazoo, come to think of it.


      • Iva Cheung September 18, 2015 / 8:10 pm

        I can’t do everything, James.


    • CGHill September 25, 2015 / 2:12 am

      The Treniers offered a slightly askew description in this 1953 R&B classic:


      • CGHill September 25, 2015 / 2:13 am

        Whoops, that’s the spot I was holding up for the *next* piece (on bleeping commercials). My bad.

        Let’s try that again:


      • Iva Cheung September 25, 2015 / 4:18 am

        Blocked on copyright grounds for me…


  5. sesquiotic September 18, 2015 / 7:34 pm

    BTW, WRT “snapping turtle,” the term snapper for vagina was current when I was in high school in Alberta in the early 1980s.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Debunker September 19, 2015 / 9:12 am

    Very interesting, but while crabs are called pubic lice, they’re a very different thing from ordinary lice. I’m no expert but I think crabs are specifically associated with sex while lice are just one of the many horrible things associated with poverty and misery. In French they call crabs “papillons d’amour!’ The village of Cromer in England once advertised itself with the slogan “Come to Cromer and catch crabs!” However, my favourite story about crabs is the old sailors’ cure for them. Apparently, you had to rub rum into your crotch and then sand, the logic being that the crabs would get roaring drunk and stone each other to death …!


  7. Russell September 19, 2015 / 7:24 pm

    Not sure of the timing, but I have a strong suspicion the breast connotation of “hooter” came from much earlier car horns, whose bulb, the part that one fondl.. uh, squeezes, have a certain bosom-like quality, viz. this one:

    Liked by 1 person

    • Iva Cheung September 19, 2015 / 8:18 pm

      Thought of that but didn’t find solid evidence for it. If you come across some, please share!


  8. יובל פינטר September 20, 2015 / 11:10 am

    Some sugar for the onomateopeic angle – in Arabic, borrowed into Modern Hebrew, a vagina (vulgar) is simply /kus/. Now you can easily enjoy this comedy sketch:

    Liked by 1 person

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