October is haunted house time. Most haunted houses rely on disorienting and startling visitors, but the best ones can create a feeling of tension, eeriness, and fear before the first masked monster jumps out and yells “boo!” These top terror retailers really know how to make your hair stand on end.
That involuntary reaction of your skin goes by the name horripilation, from the Latin horrēre, “to bristle or shiver” or “to be dreadful or terrible,” and Latin pilus, “hair.” This is an especially satisfying word in October because that same horrēre gives us the words horror and horrible.
Horripilation is also by the more boring name piloerection, from the same pilus plus erection, thus “standing hair.” Still more technical (and more boring) is cutis anserina. This last is the most common in medical texts, though odd as it may seem, it is the closest to what we commonly call this phenomenon. Cutis is Latin for “skin,” and anserinus for “goose.”
Which leads us to the most common terms for the autonomic contraction of the arrectores pilorum muscles at the base of one’s hair follicles. In ascending order of popularity and descending age:
- Goose skin entered the language during the mid-seventeenth century.
- Goose flesh (or gooseflesh) dates to about 1810.
- Goose pimples dates from the late nineteenth century.
- Goose bumps or goosebumps came around in the 1930s and has far overtaken the previous terms. Merriam-Webster lists only the two-word goose bumps, though goosebumps is gaining ground, helped along by R.L. Stine’s popular Goosebumps series of children’s horror novels.
Why the goose? Because when you suffer from horripilation, your flesh resembles that of a plucked goose — or really any plucked fowl, I would think. And in fact, John Johnstone’s 1840 update of John Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language includes the entry hen’s-flesh as a synonym for goose flesh.