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Cootie Shots and ’Uku Shots

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Elizabeth in Suffolk, Virginia, spent her early childhood in Hawaii, then moved to Indiana and found that kids had a different playground game that involved pretending to use a cootie shot to inoculate someone against imagined infection from cooties. In Indiana, they drew two circles on the back of someone’s hand then poked that hand with a finger, chanting “Circle circle dot dot, now you have your cootie shot.” In Hawaii, Elizabeth learned it as “Circle circle dot dot, now you have your ’uku shot.” The Hawaiian word ’uku means flea, and the word ukulele derives from Hawaiian words that mean jumping flea, a reference to the rapid motion of a musician’s fingers on the instrument’s strings. This is part of a complete episode.

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  • This is fascinating. My guess would be that the Hawaiian “cooties” was indeed ‘uku and not yuku. “Cooties” is a slang of kuto (lice) which British soldiers brought home, along with a few of the lice, I’m sure. Kuto is a Malay/Tagalog word (traced to Proto-Austronesian kutu) which means “body/head louse,” which is also used by extension for fleas and other such bugs and mites. So the words would be cognate. What fascinates me is that the Hawaiians adopted it in this way. How “cooties” got to every 3rd grade playground, now that is a great question.

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