[ hang-neyl ]
/ ˈhæŋˌneɪl /
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a small piece of partly detached skin at the side or base of the fingernail.


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Origin of hangnail

1300–50; Middle English angenayle corn, Old English angnægl, equivalent to ang- (variant of enge narrow, painful; cognate with German eng,see anger) + nægl callus, nail; modern h- by association with hang
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What is a hangnail?

A hangnail is a small piece of skin that’s hanging off near the side or base of the fingernail.

Despite the name, a hangnail isn’t part of the fingernail itself. When someone says they’ve broken a nail, they mean that part of their fingernail has broken off. A hangnail, though, is a piece of skin that has become detached from the cuticle or skin around the nail.

Hangnails are known for hurting more than you’d expect them to, based on their size. For that reason, the word is sometimes used in negative comparisons to indicate that something is unpleasant, irritating, or painful, but not very serious, as in This job is about as much fun as a hangnail, but it shouldn’t take too long. 

The word is also sometimes used as an example of the most minor kind of injury, as in He would call out sick if he got a hangnail, so there’s no way he’s coming in if he has the flu. 

Example: Don’t pick at your hangnail—it will be red and sore if you peel it off!

Where does hangnail come from?

The first records of the word hangnail come from around the 1300s. It comes from the Old English word angnægl. The second part of the word, nægl, means “nail.” However, the first part, ang, comes from a word meaning “painful” (the words anger and angst derive from the same root). A much less common synonym for hangnail that’s based on the same root is agnail. Still, the spelling of the beginning of hangnail was influenced by the word hang, since hangnails hang off the skin. (So, etymologically, a hangnail is actually a painnail, and isn’t that the truth.)

Hangnails can be caused by dry skin, excessive handwashing, picking your nails, or a protein deficiency. They’re usually not serious, but they can start to sting a bit when they’re irritated (which can cause some angst).

Did you know ... ?

What are some synonyms for hangnail?

What are some words that share a root or word element with hangnail


What are some words that often get used in discussing hangnail?


How is hangnail used in real life?

Hangnails are common and most people find them pretty annoying. The word is probably most commonly used in complaints about them.



Try using hangnail!

True or False? 

A hangnail is what happens when you break a nail.

How to use hangnail in a sentence

  • He said in an audible tone that the New Yorker was a human hangnail, no matter where he was born.

    Somewhere in Red Gap|Harry Leon Wilson
  • But it did matter to me that I had to dine on this hangnail pared from a sheep.

British Dictionary definitions for hangnail

/ (ˈhæŋˌneɪl) /

a piece of skin torn away from, but still attached to, the base or side of a fingernail

Word Origin for hangnail

C17: from Old English angnægl, from enge tight + nægl nail; influenced by hang
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012