Cooties Lore: Hand Signals


My informant shared this piece of folklore during a JEP Folklore class. I asked a group of first- and second-grade students, including my informant, whether they knew about cooties, and she immediately volunteered her knowledge about the hand gestures. Everyone at the table, boys and girls alike, knew about these gestures, but my informant was especially outspoken. Like most folklore about cooties these gestures are usually performed at school, inside the classroom or outside. My informant told me during a later interview, “I learned everything about cooties from my mom and my friend.”


There are two hand gestures, one particular to each sex. These gestures are sex specific, e.g. a boy should only perform the male hand signal, and the gesture has two uses: (1) as a charm defending the gesturer against the opposite sex’s cooties and (2) as a “cooties shot” which can cure someone of the gesturer’s sex who has been infected with cooties.

Boys extend their middle and index fingers, pressed together in one rectangle shape, as demonstrated by my female informant:

Girls cross their fingers so that the middle finger wraps around the index finger, as shown here:


The gestures themselves are interesting because each implies the sex for whom it is intended: the boys’ signal looks phallic or like the Mars (i.e., male) gender symbol; the girls’ symbol looks like the Venus (i.e., female) gender symbol. First- and second-graders would presumably be unaware of the symbols’ connotations (my informant, for example, could not explain why the girl symbol was for girls), but they do know they are performing their respective sexes.

The cooties game is predicated upon distinction between sexes, e.g. teaching a female participant that she is not a boy because boys will give her cooties, and so it is important that in this oicotype each sex actually performs itself (rather than merely being unlike the other sex) with sex-specific signals. This demonstrates how dramatically gender constructs pervade children’s lives, how early in life people begin to perform gender.