Updated on July 19, 2020
By Lice Technician, Jessica Zachar
Lice have been around through most of recorded human history – have you ever wondered how they have affected us culturally? In 1935, Hans Zinsser published his book Rats, Lice, and History about the role head lice plays in our social lives. He writes that “It was not so long ago, indeed, that its prevalence extended to the highest orders of society, and was accepted as an inevitable part of existence like baptism, or the smallpox.” Pediculus humanus capitis (the scientific name for head lice) has been so common throughout the world that common names for the word was adopted into local language and traditions.
We still use phrases like this today – although the practice of sharing lice has long been out of style. Have you ever heard someone being called a “nitpicker”? The term was originally described by the first English printer William Caxton in 1925 as “She who can well pick out lice and nits”. Today it has evolved into a reference to the attention to detail and accuracy needed to remove (or pick) all the nits from a lice infestation. A nitpicker is someone obsessed with fine details and thoroughness – traits we value at LiceDoctors! You may also have heard hard, difficult work as “getting down to the nitty gritty”. This means to get down to something’s essential nature. Geneva Smitherman writes in her book “Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner” (1994) that the phrase originated in the slang of African Americans, and was soon adopted into the mainstream culture. In addition, the phrase “nitwit” developed as an insult in the 20th century - meaning that a person has no more intelligence than the egg of a louse.
The word “lousy” became common as early as the 1300’s – originating from the word “louse” (singular form of “lice”) - as a term for something bad. American writers in the 19th century began using the word to mean “full of” - as in “the building was lousy with rats” to refer to an infestation or “he was lousy with money” to mean a person is rich. We still use the phrase “a lousy night’s sleep” to describe tossing and turning, originally caused by itchy bites from lice, or a louse (singular). The word “crummy” originated as a synonym for “lousy”, because the tiny nits (eggs) laid in people’s hair resembled crumbs.
World War I and the Napoleonic wars beforehand changed the meaning of the word “chat” - a verb form of the word “chatter” from the Medieval Ages meaning to discuss or gossip. Lice were so common that every time a small group of soldiers gathered to talk, they often found themselves picking lice from each others hair. Pretty soon, it was common knowledge that if you “had a chat” it also meant you were being treated for head lice
If you went to public school in the 20th or 21st century, you are well familiar with the term “cooties” - a word used to describe invisible bugs transferred among children. This originated from the Polynesian word “kuto” - meaning a parasitic insect. This term became popular in the English language during World War I and World War II, when American and British newspapers used it to discussed the lice that ran rampant through the soldiers in trenches and encampments.
While lice are not invisible or microscopic, it can be extremely difficult for the inexperienced to see them in a full head of hair. Don’t worry! Your technician can still find them. Give us a call at 310-923-9787 and we will have a lice technician in your home who will eliminate the lice infestation. You don’t need to fight this battle alone; this is a job for an expert.