It seems almost intuitive that we got the word hangnail because there's a piece of skin hanging by your nail. That's what I had always assumed, at least, but I had assumed incorrectly. In reality, the term hangnail goes back to the Old English word angnail, which meant "painful nail". There is no hanging involved; the word was modified over time to seem more correct, in a classic instance of folk etymology altering development. Ang is a now-extinct word meaning "tight" or "painful", from Proto-Germanic anguz and eventually deriving from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction hengus, meaning "narrow" or "tight" (the connection to "pain" being one of constriction). Nail, meanwhile, hails from Proto-Germanic naglaz, from PIE hnog, which still had the same definition. Intriguing stuff!
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Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic, a senior studying government and linguistics at Harvard University, where I co-founded the Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Society. In addition to etymology, I also really enjoy trivia, politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, art history, and law.