Goosebumps!

Did you know there’s a scientific, very Latin-sounding term for the experience of getting goosebumps?

It’s horripilation.

Sounds appropriate, doesn’t it? Though the etymology isn’t perhaps exactly what you think.

First of all, it strictly refers to one’s hair standing on end, which of course causes the little protrusions we know as goosebumps (or goose pimples, or goose flesh). The etymology of that term isn’t so hard to figure out: they look like the protrusions on a goose’s flesh after its feathers have been plucked.

A lot of other languages use a similar term, referring to geese, though lots of languages refer to hens instead (chair de poule in French, ciccia di gallina or pelle d’oca, depending on what region of Italy you’re from).

But back to that more respectable-sounding word, horripilation. At this stage, you might be thinking, I know how this works. Let me try to break the word down. Horri– like horror, because often you get goosebumps when you’re scared! And lots of words related to hair have a pil- sound, probably from the Latin pilus. How did I do?

Not bad. Basically right, in fact, but the horror part is slightly backwards. Or, at least, both horror and horripilation share a common ancestor. Both can be traced back to the Latin verb horrere (to bristle), from the Proto-Indo-European root *ghers-. The word horror therefore comes from the fact that our hairs stand on end when we’re scared (or in other situations, befitting the previous ambiguity about horror and terror). And horripilation, rather than referring to horror, similarly refers to hairs standing on end.

So now if you ever find yourself in a hairy situation, you’ll at least know where that expression comes from.

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