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!
Adam Aleksic is a 219-month-old, 2800-ounce high school senior with disturbing interests in etymology, vexillology, geography, board games, limericks, and law. Adam is awaiting his college rescissions and loves writing about himself in the third person.
The Etymology Nerd