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Q From Peter Heimler: One word that has always puzzled me is nail. Why is the thing on the end of our fingers called the same as the thing that fixes wood together? It would end years of wondering if you would be so kind as to get to the bottom of this.

A The connection is ancient. It appears in one of the earliest documents in English, dating from the early eighth century.

The text, in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, has become known as the Corpus Glossary. It’s a list of Latin words with their Old English equivalents. Nail is included twice in its Old English form naegl, once to translate a variant of the classical Latin unguis for a finger or toe nail, the other the words paxillum and palum for a wooden pin or peg.

The experts say that naegl derives from a prehistoric Indo-European root that became not only unguis but also Greek onux and other words of the same meaning in most of the languages of Europe.

The original senses of the Latin and Greek words could be a finger or toe nail, but both were also used for the horny endings of the toes of cattle, horses, birds and other beasts, for which we now have the separate words hoof, claw and talon.

A link in shape between claws and pointed fasteners of wood or metal seems to have been established in prehistory, centuries before it was written down in the Corpus Glossary.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 9 Aug. 2014

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 9 August 2014.