Horripilatory etymology

It’s a dark wet evening in the west of Ireland and I’m cosying up with The Poolbeg Book of Irish Ghost Stories (1990), edited by the late author and literary editor David Marcus. His brief introduction contains a word too rare even to appear in the OED. But you’ll probably know or can guess what it means:

[Ghosts’] preferred outer abode was a dark wood; indoors they inhabited rambling old castles or, more latterly, unsaleable houses, stalking creaky corridors and draughty bedchambers to the accompaniment of howls, shrieks, moans, plods and clankings. It goes without saying that they were largely nocturnal creatures, preferring the small hours and often the most inclement of weather in which to conduct their business. Daylight, electric light, gaslight were eschewed. Candlelight, because they had the capacity to extinguish a candle and so create the maximum horripilatory effect, was welcomed.

Horripilatory is a technical word meaning hair-raising. The associated noun horripilation is much more common, though hardly an everyday term; it too refers to the physiological phenomenon often called gooseflesh or goosebumps, typically caused by cold or fear. It comes from Latin horripilāre “bristle with hairs”, formed from horrēre “bristle, tremble” + pilus “hair” (cf. the cosmetic terms epilation and depilation).

Horrēre lurks behind horror, horrendous, horrify, abhor and horrid (which originally meant bristling or shaggy); and it’s also seen in the obscure horrious “causing horror”, horrent “bristling or rough”, horrisonant and horrisonous “of horrible sound”, and abhorrible “detestable”. A pretty hair-raising bunch of words, wouldn’t you say?


8 Responses to Horripilatory etymology

  1. Claire Stokes says:

    Ohh, scary! You must have nerves of steel!!

  2. Marvellous! Vocabulary worthy of the phrontistery of lost words.Your article has thoroughly enlightened me. Regards, FREAKY FOLK TALES

  3. Roger says:

    Hirsute or hispid, the lexicophagi might say; or ghers-ish, even (AHD, Pok.).

  4. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Stan, your expounding on the origins of this odd word, “horripilatory”, kind of raised my eyebrows (that’s hair, no?), physically and metaphorically, setting me to pondering, and then conjuring up some other more familiar expressions of extreme, descriptive, bodily reactions to horrific, macabre, or emotionally disturbing ‘eventualities’.

    They might include, “blood-curdling”, “spine-tingling” *, “bone-chilling”, “stomach-churning”, “knee-knocking”, “teeth-gnashing”, and “heart-pounding”, for starters… and in my case, finishers, as well.

    * Admittedly, “spine-tingling” could carry more of an excite-related, or enervating connotation, rather than implying a negative visceral reaction to encountering either the horrific, or scary in one’s midst.

  5. alexmccrae1546 says:


    That should have read “excitement-related”, not “excite-related” in that lone footnote in my last post. (That could have raised a few eyebrows. HA!)

  6. Stan says:

    Claire: When things began to get hairy, I just repeated to myself: “It’s only a dictionary. It’s only a dictionary…”

    Freaky: Glad you enjoyed it. Phrontistery is a marvellous word.

    Roger: Hispid is a fine, spiny addition to the set.

    Alex: A pleasing collection of phrases. There’s a children’s anthology of spooky poems called Spine Tinglers that I was very fond of as a child, and from whose illustrations I borrowed liberally in my own Halloween-themed sketching.

    • alexmccrae1546 says:


      As a professional artist, it was heartening to hear your revealing little tidbit of early personal history re/ your enjoyment of drawing; or as you put it, “sketching”. Yet another talent in your wide repertoire of talents.

      I find it’s often the case, especially w/ precocious future visual artists, that they tend, early on, to copy from existing imagery that might resonates w/ them. Budding cartoonists usually try to emulate their favorite comic strips, future painters, their most revered painters, and so on.

      (Interesting that several American novelists, as youngsters, aspired to be cartoonist, and loved the drawing experience as kids. Tom Wolfe and the late John Updike immediately come to mind. Wolfe actually has had a few books published of his cartoons… drawn as an adult.)

      Not that I would have put myself in the young, precociously gifted category, but on entering art college in the early ’70s and deciding sculpture would be my immediate artistic focus, I immersed myself in, and studied images of the works of the recognized modernist masters of the day; namely Brits Henry Moore, Dame Barbara Hepworth, Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, and Euro ‘continentalists’ like Arp, Brancusi, Marini, Manzu, Greco, Giacometti, and their ilk.

      At art school, I recall sculpting a smallish ovoid, egg-shaped piece w/ several elliptical voids (holes), in wax, and then casting it in bronze… high-polished on the outside w/ a green-black patina on the interior surface.

      Then one day, not long after finishing this piece, I was glancing thru a recently released book on the sculpture of my then-idol, Henry Moore, and was suddenly gobsmacked-in-my-tracks by a photo of almost the identical ovoid sculpture I’d recently had cast, having priding myself on its originality. Oops! (A fine lesson learned.)

      Stan, curious if you still ‘sketch’ on occasion?

      P.S.: –It’s fellow Canuck, author Margaret Atwood’s 74th birthday today. I must say she and our Alice Munro are quite the dynamic Canadian literary duo.

  7. […] his own blog, Stan gave us some hair-raising etymology and took a look at because as a preposition (because grammar), which inspired Megan Garber at The Atlantic […]

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