"worrisome or suspenseful experience," by 1999, perhaps originally in reference to close games in sports, from the notion of biting one's fingernails as a sign of anxiety (attested from 1570s); see nail (n.) + bite (v.). Nail-biting (n.) is from 1805; nail-biter as "person who habitually or compulsively bites his fingernails" is by 1856.
Entries linking to nail-biter
Old English negel "tapering metal pin," nægl "fingernail (handnægl), toenail," from Proto-Germanic *naglaz (source also of Old Norse nagl "fingernail," nagli "metal nail;" Old Saxon and Old High German nagel, Old Frisian neil, Middle Dutch naghel, Dutch nagel, German Nagel "fingernail; small metal spike"), from PIE root *(o)nogh "nail of the finger or toe" (source also of Greek onyx "claw, fingernail;" Latin unguis "fingernail, claw;" Old Church Slavonic noga "foot," noguti "fingernail, claw;" Lithuanian naga "hoof," nagutis "fingernail;" Old Irish ingen, Old Welsh eguin "fingernail, claw").
The "fingernail" sense seems to be the original one, but many figurative uses are from the "small metal spike" sense: hard as nails is from 1828. To hit the nail on the head "say or do just the right thing" is by 1520s; in Middle English driven in the nail (c. 1400) was "to drive home one's point, clinch an argument," and smiten the nail on the hed was "tell the exact truth" (mid-15c.). Phrase on the nail "on the spot, exactly" is from 1590s, of obscure origin; OED says it is not certain it belongs to this sense of nail.
As a unit of English cloth measure (about 2 1/4 inches) from late 14c.; perhaps from a nail being used to mark that length on the end of a yardstick.
Old English bitan "to pierce or cut with the teeth" (class I strong verb; past tense bat, past participle biten), from Proto-Germanic *beitanan (source also of Old Saxon bitan, Old Norse and Old Frisian bita "cut, pierce, penetrate," Middle Dutch biten, Dutch bijten, German beissen, Gothic beitan "to bite"), from PIE root *bheid- "to split," with derivatives in Germanic referring to biting.
To bite the bullet is said to be 1700s military slang, from old medical custom of having the patient bite a lead bullet during an operation to divert attention from pain and reduce screaming. Figurative use of this is from 1891; the custom itself attested from 1840s.
Figurative bite (one's) tongue "refrain from speaking" is by 1590s; to bite (one's) lip to repress signs of some emotion or reaction is from early 14c. To bite off more than one can chew (c. 1880) is U.S. slang, from plug tobacco.
To bite the dust "be thrown or struck down," hence "be vanquished, die, be slain, perish in battle" is from 1750, earlier bite the ground (1670s), lick the dust (late 14c.), which OED identifies as "a Hebraism," but Latin had the same image; compare Virgil's procubuit moriens et humum semel ore momordit.
updated on April 11, 2019