In a Word: Hammering Out a Hangnail

Hangnails aren’t what they used to be.


Weekly Newsletter

The best of The Saturday Evening Post in your inbox!


Senior managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

Hangnails — bits of sometimes inflamed skin hanging loose at the side or root of a fingernail or toenail — are annoying and sometimes painful. At least, the hangnails of today are: Hangnails began as a problem only with the foot, and it had nothing to do with toenails.

The word hangnail began as the Old English angnægl, which was a combination of ang “tight, painful” and nægl “nail,” but originally the kind used to hold pieces of wood together. An angnægl was a hard corn on the foot, the word equating the thickened, hardened skin of a corn with the head of a nail (presumably, the rest of the nail was metaphorically embedded in the foot).

Old English angnægl evolved into angnail or agnail, and then folk etymology took over. Because it had nail in it, people assumed it had something to do with fingernails and toenails — not corns. And then people started using the word to describe a particular problem around the nails. Ang probably became hang because of the way the skin hangs loose along the edge of the nail.

Thus the name of one particular acute affliction shifted to another. That left a hole in the language for the original problem.

In walked corn — or early versions of it, at least — around the 15th century. This type of corn on the foot is not related to the cash crop that crunch taco shells are made from. It comes from the French corne, from the Latin cornu “horn of an animal.” A corn is a little horn on your foot.

That means it’s etymologically related to unicorn but not corn syrup.

Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now


  1. This feature is fascinating and timely. I’m currently dealing with two hangnails; right hand thumb and middle finger. Thank goodness for that (generic) Neosporin. Agnail or angnail it’s still ouch, ouch.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *