Due to Being Sat Upon….
Dear WD: What, please, is the origin of the phrase “pins and needles”? It seems to be no older than the mid-19th Century. It also seems to have no “proper” term. In the few languages I know, its translation is also “folksy” — for instance, “les fourmis” (“the ants”) in French, and “Codladh Grifin” (“Griffin Sleep”) in Irish. — Eoin Bairiad, Dublin, Ireland.
Sometimes I wonder whether I’m really sufficiently refined, culturally speaking, to write this column. I’ve spent the better part of an hour just now rummaging through various reference books in search of the answer to your question, and you’ll never guess what was running through my mind the entire time. Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony? A Bach cantata? Old Latin verb conjugations? Nope, not even close. Playing between my ears even as I write this is an unbelievably insipid ditty called “Pins and Needles,” recorded in the mid-1960s by The Dave Clark Five. Please, somebody, make it stop.
It does seem, as you’ve discovered, that there is no “proper” technical term for “pins and needles,” the unpleasant prickling sensation that occurs when one of our limbs, having “fallen asleep” due to being sat upon or the like, “reawakens.” As to why it’s called “pins and needles,” I cannot, offhand, think of a more appropriate description, so that doesn’t seem much of a mystery. The general category for this sort of false sensation is “paraesthesia” (from the Greek “para” (disordered) plus “aesthesis” (sensation)), defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a “disordered or perverted sensation; a hallucination of any of the senses.” Paraesthesia includes many other sorts of sensory hallucinations than just “pins and needles,” however. Interestingly, among them is “formication,” meaning the sensation of ants (“formica” being Latin for “ant”) crawling on or just under the skin, which seems to echo the French phrase you mention.
The first print evidence of the use of “pins and needles” to mean a prickling sensation does come in the mid-19th century, although the term had been used as early as 1810 to mean “a state of excessive uneasiness” or nervousness. I would hazard a guess that the “nervous state of mind” sense of the phrase was actually based on earlier, unrecorded, uses of the “prickling” sense. After all, folk sayings are often used by “the folks” for decades or even centuries before they show up in print.