Lice have been humankind’s constant companions since almost the very beginning of our species. Scientists hypothesize that lice first claimed humans as their host around 5 million years ago, and they’ve been around ever since. Despite millennia of fighting lice with a variety of techniques, we can’t seem to exterminate them completely.
Furthermore, the head lice that we continue to struggle with only choose human hosts. Though many other types of lice (or parasitic insects in general) will settle for any warm-blooded host, Pediculus humanus capitis will only feed on humans.
Throughout history, despite all the changes the human species has undergone, lice have remained pretty much unchanged. Although they aren’t as commonplace as they were in the Middle Ages, the fact remains that anyone—from Egyptian pharaohs to the other students in your child’s kindergarten class—are susceptible to a louse infestation.
Because of our long shared history, it only makes sense that lice have made their way into our language. Here are a few common English terms that can be traced back to our parasitic companions.
Many English words and phrases have murky origins that are hard to trace. This is not the case with “lousy.” The word was originally used in the 1300s to mean “infested with lice,” which evolved over time to serve as a synonym for “bad” or “poor.” The idea is that something swarming with lice must not be very worthwhile or valuable.
In the 19th century, American writers began using a new idiomatic definition of the word, based on its original definition of “infested with lice.” Lousy came to mean “full of” something, or possessing much of something. One could say a person was “lousy” with wealth, meaning that they were extremely rich.
As a slang term, crummy is synonymous with lousy. It can mean something along the lines of shabby and dirty (“a crummy hotel”), worthless or inferior (“a crummy job”), or sick and poorly (“I feel crummy”). The word likely developed from a slang term for louse—crumb—due to the physical appearance of lice eggs. Someone with head lice looked like they had crumbs in their hair.
Much like lousy, the meaning of the word crummy refers to the idea that someone or someplace infected with lice is dirty or less valuable.
Someone who is overly concerned with small trivial details is often called a nitpicker, or nitpicky. Often, to completely eradicate a lice infestation, the person administering treatment needs to take a very fine comb and individually pick the lice eggs, or nits, out of the hair. Since lice lay their eggs on hair strands and the nits are miniscule, the process can be tedious and time-consuming.
Although the need to pick out nits has been around for millions of years, the term “nitpicky,” which means “overly critical,” only entered the English language recently. The Oxford English Dictionary lists the first recorded usage of “nitpicker” as 1951, when it was used to describe someone who spent a long time worrying about small details without offering any positive changes. The word “nitpicky” followed shortly thereafter.
While cooties is not a term regularly found in formal or mature conversation, it was likely a part of your childhood if you grew up in the 20th century. “Cooties” are imaginary bugs that are usually passed through contact with a child of the opposite sex.
The term entered the English language during World War I, when British soldiers used it to describe the lice that infested their trenches. One newspaper, published in 1918, described the cooties suffered by soldiers as a fourth of an inch long with large, painful fangs. The word likely originated from kuto, a word used in many Polynesian languages to mean a parasitic insect—such as lice.
The word gained popularity in the United States after World War II, likely due to the influence of American and British soldiers who were stationed in the South Pacific.
Having a Chat
“Chat,” meaning to talk, has actually been in use as a verb for several centuries as a shortened form of the Middle English word “chatter,” which meant to talk quickly and rapidly or to gossip. However, soldiers during the Napoleonic wars and World War I also used the term to refer to lice.
“Chat” made the switch from verb to noun because of the recreational activity of killing lice while talking to fellow soldiers. The group delousing sessions became known simply as “chats.” So if you ever find yourself a part of a group chat, you know where the term came from!
Although humans and lice have a long and interesting shared history, you don’t need to keep them around. You can appreciate their impact on the English language without letting them live in your hair. If you or someone in your family has lice, come into Heartland Healthy Heads for a professional delousing treatment.