Words with Webster: Vibrissa
Real Cat Webster is all aquiver (you might even say he’s vibrating—and yes, this is a joke) over the cat-related word he has dug up for this edition of “Words with Webster.” The word is vibrissa (plural vibrissae), and according to Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, it means “any of the stiff hairs that are located on the face and especially about the snout of many mammals and typically serve as tactile organs; also : a similar stiff tactile hair growing elsewhere on some mammals (as in a small tuft at the wrist).”
So basically, we’re talking about a cat’s whiskers.
Webster likes the word vibrissa because it’s fun to say; I like it because it has good Latin roots, coming from vibrissae, which refers to the hairs in people’s nostrils, and having its ultimate roots in vibrare, meaning to shake or vibrate. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word was first used to refer to animals’ whiskers in the 19th century.
|Check out the vibrissae on this cat!|
Stock image by nic_ol, via Adobe Stock.
You may be wondering where the word whisker comes from. Well, turning once again to the Oxford English Dictionary, we learned that whisker first referred to something like a fan or a bunch of feathers that was used for whisking or sweeping. Its first known use was in 1425 (“a wisker waftynge wynde upon hir,” St. Mary of Oignies), and it came to be used for the special hairs on an animal’s face by the late 17th century.
We learned a lot more about whiskers—excuse me, vibrissae—from the University of Melbourne. Old SoLT always thought that whiskers were feelers, and it’s true that cats use them as sensory organs, but it turns out that neither the whiskers themselves nor their follicles contain any nerves, so they don’t actually “feel” things directly. It’s the area around them that is rich with nerve endings and that makes whiskers so valuable to a cat’s sensory life. Besides sensing direct touch, vibrissae can help sense vibration and airflow, letting us cats know where we are in space.
Old SoLT thinks a cat’s whiskers are really cute, but this is obviously beside the point. Vibrissae are sort of a high-tech feline guidance system that you humans should revere and envy. Remember that the next time you’re getting ready to post a #WhiskersWednesday photo to your social media!
And now to Friendly Fill-Ins. from 15andmeowing and McGuffy’s Reader. They are a fun way to learn a little bit about the authors of the blogs you read. The first two questions, answered by old SoLT, are from Ellen of 15andmeowing, and the next two, answered this week by Real Cat Paisley, are from Annie of McGuffy’s Reader.
A friend is someone who doesn’t go behind your back and eat your wet food when you fully intended to come back and finish it later. Thus, the dog is not my friend.