Catfish are so named because their barbels, the whisker-like appendages near their mouths, superficially resemble the whiskers of cats. The name dates from the 1610s.
Catfish live and feed near the bottoms of bodies of water, locations that are often both far from the sun and clouded with suspended sediment. In such areas, vision is less useful than other senses for locating food. The catfish's barbels are sensory organs that serve principally to provide the sense of taste, so they are useful for detecting food in the murky habitat. Catfish can have as many as four pairs of barbels: one pair near the nostrils, one pair near the sides of the mouth and two pairs on the chin.