When your body perceives a chill or reacts to an outside stimulus of sorts, the skin puckers around your hair follicles, creating goosebumps (or gooseflesh or goose pimples).
But what is this body reaction, exactly? And what does it have such a funny name?
Goosebumps go by a few different names, but all are related to the literal connotation being suggested: the flesh of a goose. If this sounds strange, you aren’t alone in your thinking, but it does make sense! Let’s look at this phenomenon, where it got its name, and how you can use it correctly.
What Do Goosebumps (Gooseflesh and Goose Pimples) Mean?
Goosebumps, goose pimples, and gooseflesh are bumps that appear on the skin when one is aroused, afraid, excited, or cold. Scientific terms for this phenomenon are cutis anserina, piloerection, and horripilation.
The phenomenon is most commonly seen when stimulated by the cold as part of a chill reflex, including shivering and teeth chattering.
- She ran into the restaurant’s freezer for the ice cream and emerged with gooseflesh raised along her bare arms and legs.
Another circumstance that may serve as a stimulus for this autonomic response is fear. A horror movie may elicit goosebumps, as well as a situation in which someone is truly threatened and must decide whether to follow a course of fight or flight. Goosebumps that are triggered because someone is frightened may be accompanied by shivers or perspiration as adrenaline floods the body.
- While walking through the park last night, goosebumps rose along my arms and the back of my neck – I swear I was being watched.
A light tickle, such as a stroke along one’s neck or inner arm, is also known to cause goosebumps. In this situation, excitement or arousal may also cause the contracting of the epidermis into goosebumps, as sudden emotions play a large part in the mechanism of the sympathetic nervous system.
- His hand brushed against her fingers when they sat down, making goosebumps rise along her arm.
Goosebumps, Goose Pimples, or Gooseflesh?
The compound words goosebumps, goose pimples, and gooseflesh are interchangeable, though the popularity of each of these expressions has ebbed and flowed over time. Goosebumps are, by far, the most widely used modern expression of the three in English-speaking countries.
- The cold breeze brought goosebumps to the surface of her skin, and she shivered against the chill.
- The cold breeze brought gooseflesh to the surface of her skin, and she shivered against the chill.
- The cold breeze brought goose pimples to the surface of her skin, and she shivered against the chill.
The Science Behind Goosebumps
The bumps appear because the arrector pili muscles contract. In human skin, these muscles are located at the base of each hair follicle. This contraction causes the hairs to stand straight up. This is a natural response in animals to create a way to trap body heat against the cold, except for humans because we don’t have enough hair covering to make it effective.
Goosebumps, goose pimples, and gooseflesh are vestigial and involuntary reflexes, meaning you can’t control them even if you try.
Why Are Goosebumps Called Goosebumps?
The etymology for the terms goosebumps, goose pimples, and gooseflesh is easy to understand. They are comparisons to a plucked goose. A small bump remains when a feather is removed from the poultry skin.
Poultry that has been denuded of its feathers has an uncanny resemblance to goosebumps. Most languages have a term that compares piloerection to some type of bird flesh. In Dutch and Finnish, it is chicken skin. In Japan, it is a more generic bird skin.
The term has been used in various forms through the centuries, possibly traced back to the 1400s as hen-flesh, although pinpointing that source has been difficult. Goose’s skin was used as early as 1744. Gooseflesh became popular in the early 1800s with the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge referring to it in his poem, Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
It raised my hair, it fanned my cheek
Like a meadow-gale of spring—
It mingled strangely with my fears,
Yet it felt like a welcoming.
Goosebumps were described in 1859 as a “peculiar tingling of the skin produced by cold, fear, etc.; the sensation was described as “cold water down the back.”
Is ‘Goosebumps’ One Word or Two Words?
Note that goosebumps and gooseflesh are closed compound words, with no space between the two words, while goose pimples is an open compound word, with a space between the two words.
However, this seems to be a point of contention and is open to personal preference. Some dictionaries list it as one word, while others list it as two.
You can write it as two words and still be grammatically correct without losing meaning. The open compound version is actually the more popular of the two, but all spell check software recognize goosebumps as well.
Goosebumps, gooseflesh, and goose pimples are fun words that describe the literal look of your skin when chilled, scared, or excited. It comes from what a de-feathered bird looks like after plucking, hence the name.
It has a long history tied to both its etymology and scientific explanation and has a descriptive counterpart in almost all countries around the world.