vellicate

You probably don’t know the meaning of this word – it’s not very common. So tell me: what effect does it have on you before I say what it means? It makes me think of velleity (a whim, a wish, an inclination) and Elise Velle, whose singing can send little frissons down the spine. But of course there are other things that may more commonly come to mind: vellum (crackling material to prick and tickle with your pen), jelly (which shivers and twitches), villain (who may make you shudder or simply irritate you), maybe lick and tickle – and perhaps even a hint of the horripilation that such things may produce.

Ah, horripilation: the hair stands on end. You see it in this word: the lli – ooh, that i looks like someone’s plucked one. Imagine! Imagine someone sneaking up behind you, running a feather down the back of your neck – and plucking a hair that happened to stand up! Would that not make you twitch a bit?

The connection, apparently, seems natural enough – or anyway used to. This word comes from Latin vellicare, the frequentative of vellere, which meant, as OED puts it, “pull, pluck, twitch, etc.” So its English senses started with “prick” and “irritate” and the related “pull” and “pinch” (the shapes of the v and ll seem to play with that sense as well); from there it readily proceeded to “twitch” and “cause to twitch” (all these senses are still at least somewhat current). And “tickle” and “titillate” proceed from that, it seems; we see Erasmus Darwin writing, in 1794, “So when children expect to be tickled in play . . . by gently vellicating the soles of their feet, laughter is most vehemently excited.”

Now, tell me, does that description not vellicate you, one way or the other? The dryness with which the classic childish activity is described may irritate you, make you twitch, or tickle you entirely. Try this next time you’re having an intimate phone conversation: say “I’m gently vellicating the soles of your feet.” See whether it doesn’t produce a frisson (or, indeed, most vehemently excite laughter). Do you have the pluck to do it?

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