The Grammarphobia Blog

A hair-raising subject

Q: Could you please enlighten my son and me as to the origins of the expression “It made my hair stand on end”?

A: The expression in its various guises has been around for centuries. You can find references in both Shakespeare and the Bible. The Ghost in Hamlet, for example, speaks of a tale that would make “each particular hair to stand an end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine.”

Indeed, the phrase can be traced all the way back to the Latin verb “horrere” (meaning to bristle or stand on end), which has given us such scary words as “horror,” “horrible,” “horrendous,” and “horrific.” The related Latin word “horrificus” (think of the dark-magic “Horcruxes” in the Harry Potter books) literally means making the hair stand on end.

Pretty hair-raising stuff, isn’t it? Well, there’s a physiological reason for equating the bristling of our hair with feelings of terror. We shiver and get goose bumps (or gooseflesh) when we’re cold or terrified because the skin contracts, making the hairs stand erect. Two technical terms for this condition are “horripilation” (another word from “horrere”) and “cutis anserina” (the Latin for goose skin).

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