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Where Did the Word 'Goosebumps' Come From

Everyone at one time or another, has experienced goosebumps. This is when the follicles at the base of hairs on the body rise, usually involuntarily, in response to fear, excitation, cold, or strong emotions. They are usually most noticeable on the forearms, back, and back of the neck. I sometimes get them when I see something that is especially touching or moving. It isn’t just humans that get them, either. The same phenomenon is what allows animals to raise their hair, or in the case of the porcupine, its quills. Bears, dogs, cats, and many other animals ‘raise their hackles”, which is what goosebumps really are. But where does the name ‘goosebumps’ come from? Geese don’t normally raise their hackles.

The name actually comes from something that is observed when preparing a goose for cooking and eating, namely, plucking them. When the feathers are plucked out, the follicles at the base of the feathers end up raised, leaving tiny bumps all over the body of the plucked goose. These are literally goosebumps. In the case of humans, the bumps form at hair follicles rather than feather follicles, but the appearance is very similar. A very long time ago, someone noticed the similarity and ‘goosebumps’ came into use.

There are similar words in languages other than English, too. In German, Gänsehau means ‘goose skin’. The same thing happens when other birds are plucked, so some languages don’t refer to geese. In Spanish, piel de gallina references a hen chicken. In Hebrew, the word they use means “duck skin” The word ‘horror’ comes from this reaction Horrere is Latin for “to bristle”; a description of goosebumps. The word goosebumps has been in use since at least the late 1700s.

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Written by Rex Trulove

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  1. These were always known as “goose pimples” in the UK, but the American “goosebumps” has invaded and taken over. It is yet another Americanism that we have to get used to – but I shall try to resist for as long as possible!

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