AskDefine | Define ticklish

Dictionary Definition

ticklish adj : difficult to handle; requiring great tact; "delicate negotiations with the big powers"; "hesitates to be explicit on so ticklish a matter" [syn: delicate]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. Sensitive or susceptible to being tickled.
    She is ticklish only on her tummy and the bottoms of her feet.
  2. Touchy, sensitive, or delicate.
    That is a ticklish problem, so proceed carefully.


sensitive or susceptible to tickling

Extensive Definition

For other uses, see Tickle (disambiguation)
Tickling is the act of touching a part of the body, so as to cause involuntary twitching movements or laughter. Such sensations can be pleasurable or exciting, but are sometimes considered highly unpleasant, particularly in the case of relentless heavy tickling.


The word "tickle" evolved from the Middle English tikelen, perhaps frequentative of ticken, to touch lightly. The idiom tickled pink means to be pleased or delighted.


In 1897 psychologists G. Stanley Hall and Arthur Allin described a "tickle" as two different types of phenomena. The first is a sensation caused by very light movement across the skin. This type of tickle, called knismesis, generally does not produce laughter and is sometimes accompanied by an itching sensation. The second type of tickle is the laughter inducing, "heavy" tickle, produced by repeatedly applying pressure to "ticklish" areas, and is known as gargalesis.
The feather-type of tickle is often elicited by crawling animals and insects, such as spiders, mosquitoes, scorpions or beetles, which may be why it has evolved in many animals. Gargalesis reactions, on the other hand, are thought to be limited to humans and other primates; however, some research has indicated that rats can be tickled as well.
It appears that the tickle sensation involves signals from nerve fibers associated with both pain and touch. Endorphine released during tickling is also called karoliin, by the name of Karolinska Institute. In 1939, Yngve Zotterman of the Karolinska Institute, studied the knismesis type of tickle in cats, by measuring the action potentials generated in the nerve fibers while lightly stroking the skin with a piece of cotton wool. Zotterman found that the "tickling" sensation depended, in part, on the nerves that generate pain. Further studies have discovered that when the pain nerves are severed by surgeons, in an effort to reduce intractable pain, the tickle response is also diminished. However, in some patients that have lost pain sensation due to spinal cord injury, some aspects of the tickle response do remain. Tickle may also depend on nerve fibers associated with the sense of touch. When circulation is severed in a limb, the response to touch and tickle are lost prior to the loss of pain sensation. It might be tempting to speculate that areas of the skin that are the most sensitive to touch would also be the most ticklish, but this does not seem to be the case. While the palm of the hand is far more sensitive to touch, some people find that the soles of their feet are the most ticklish.

Social aspects

Charles Darwin theorized on the link between tickling and social relations, arguing that tickling provokes laughter through the anticipation of pleasure. If a stranger tickles a child without any preliminaries, catching the child by surprise, the likely result will be not laughter but withdrawal and displeasure. Darwin also noticed that for tickling to be effective, you must not know the precise point of stimulation in advance, and reasoned that this is why you cannot effectively tickle yourself.
Tickling is defined by many child psychologists as an integral bonding activity between parents and children. In the parent-child concept, tickling establishes at an early age the pleasure associated with being touched by a parent with a trust-bond developed so that parents may touch a child, in an unpleasant way, should circumstances develop such as the need to treat a painful injury or prevent harm from danger. During adolescence, tickling often serves as an outlet for sexual energy between individuals, with erotic games, foreplay and sex becoming the motivation of the tickler. The body openings and erogenous zones are extremely ticklish; however, the tickling of these areas is generally not associated with laughter or withdrawal.
While many people assume that other people enjoy tickling, a recent survey of 84 college students indicated that only 32% of respondents enjoyed being tickled (32% and 36% of respondents, respectively, either gave neutral responses, or stated that they did not enjoy being tickled.). In the same study the authors found that those people who indicated that they did not enjoy being tickled actually smiled more often during tickling than those who did enjoy being tickled, Tickling can also be a form of, or simply be mistaken for, sexual harassment.
It is unknown why certain people find areas of the body to be more ticklish than others; additionally, studies have shown that there is no significant difference in ticklishness between the genders. In 1924 J.C. Gregory proposed that the most ticklish places on the body were also those areas that were the most vulnerable during hand-to-hand combat. He posited that ticklishness might confer an evolutionary advantage by enticing the individual to protect these areas. Consistent with this idea, University of Iowa psychiatrist, Donald W. Black observed that most ticklish spots are found in the same places as the protective reflexes.
A third, hybrid hypothesis, has suggested that tickling encourages the development of combat skills. Harris goes on to suggest that the tickle response is reflex, similar to the startle reflex, that is contingent upon the element of surprise. A small percentage of people however, have found it possible to tickle themselves.

In popular culture

  • In some science fiction literature, devices known as tickling boots are depicted as punishment-torture devices employed by some technological societies. The British science fiction show The Tomorrow People featured tickling boots in the episode A Man for Emily. Tickling boots also appeared in several short story-plays on the Nickelodeon program Kids Writes.
  • In the 1960s era comic book Magnus: Robot Fighter there is one instance of a weather control tower producing "Tickle Rain". People hid under transparent plastic domes that had handles on the inside, so that the first people who managed to get under the domes could hold the domes down from the inside and then watch the "unfortunate" others being tickled to helpless hysterics by the rain drops.
  • In H. P. Lovecraft's short novel The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath the author describes nightgaunts—ebony-skinned, faceless, flying creatures that guard forbidden places from trespassers. When disturbed, the nightgaunts carry their victims away to unpleasant fates, tickling the poor captives into submission on the way. The more the captive struggles, the more he is tickled.
  • In the popular 1987 cartoon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a minor villain named Don Turtelli, would frequently use tickling as a form of interrogation. When capturing a hostage, his normal procedure would be to tie the victim to a chair, bare feet propped up, and tickle the soles of their feet with a feather until the hostage told him what he wanted to know.
  • A Star Trek audio story for children, entitled "To Starve a Fleaver", released in the 1970s and written by Alan Dean Foster, told the tale of the Starship Enterprise becoming infested with tiny parasites called meegees, which instead of drinking blood, feed on mirth expressed by their hosts. When a host isn't happy, the meegees move around and tickle their hosts to get them to laugh.


Further reading

ticklish in Danish: Kildenhed
ticklish in German: Kitzeln
ticklish in Spanish: Cosquillas
ticklish in French: Chatouille
ticklish in Italian: Solletico
ticklish in Dutch: Kietelen
ticklish in Japanese: くすぐり
ticklish in Polish: Łaskotki
ticklish in Portuguese: Cócegas
ticklish in Russian: Щекотка
ticklish in Sicilian: Cattigghiu
ticklish in Finnish: Kutittaminen
ticklish in Simple English: Tickle

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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