Podcast onychophagia

Printable Version
Pronunciation: ah-nê-kê-fay-ji-ê Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun, mass (no plural)

Meaning: The nervous habit of biting the nails, usually those on the fingers, since our nerves seldom drive us to nibble those on our toes.

Notes: A nail-biter is an onychophagic, the personal noun, which does double duty as the adjective, as in "His onychophagic impulses are so strong, Hans Orf wears gloves and shoes around the clock." A doctor specializing in this minor disorder would be, I guess, an onychophagiologist.

In Play: "Why do I need this word?" you are asking yourself. Well, it has several uses. If you are a nail-biter, it serves as a term that suggests that nail-biting is a medical condition, shifting any blame from your shoulders: "I use artificial nails to cover up the damage caused by my onychophagia." If you would like to stop someone in your family from biting their nails, here is just the word to scare them into doing it: "Weldon, if you don't learn to control your onychophagia I will have to take you to an onychophagiologist for treatment."

Word History: Today's peculiar word is a Greek compound comprising the root of onyx (onycho-) "(finger/toe) nail" + phagia "eating". The Greeks used their word for "nail" to name the gemstone from which cameos are made (onyx) because of the similarity in color. Onyx came from PIE onogh- "(finger/toe)nail, talon", source also of Latin unguis "(finger/toe)nail" and ungulus "hoof, claw". Unguis is responsible for Portuguese unha, Spanish uņa, French ongle, Italian unghia. English borrowed ungulate "hooved" from Latin ungulatus "having hooves".

Phagia "eating" is the noun form of phagein "to eat", a verb whose root is also visible in sarcophagus. Sarcophagus means "flesh-eater" from the fact that ancient Greeks believed that the limestone sarcophagi they buried their dead in ate away the flesh. (We won't leave you biting your nails any longer but will reveal right now that our Brazilian friend and Good Word editor, Luciano Eduardo de Oliveira, suggested today's Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

P.S. - Register for the Daily Good Word E-Mail! - You can get our daily Good Word sent directly to you via e-mail in either HTML or Text format. Go to our Registration Page to sign up today!