Nail-biter is an interesting idiom. An idiom is a commonly used word, group of words, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech like an often-used metaphor have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words or other parts of speech common in American slang or British slang, is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions and idiomatic language such as hit the sack, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, silver lining, back to the drawing board, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, because they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker; it is helpful to maintain a list of phrases, common expressions, colloquial terms, and popular expressions to memorize that are used figuratively or idiomatically. We will examine the meaning of the common idiom nail-biter where it came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.

A nail-biter is a suspenseful situation, a contest in which either participant has a good chance of winning, an anxiety-provoking circumstance. For instance, a horror movie may be a nail-biter; a game in which the score is tied may be a nail-biter; or a political election in which the outcome is uncertain may be a nail-biter. Nail-biter may also have a literal meaning, indicating a person who bites his nails. The expression nail-biter comes from the fact that many people have the nervous habit of biting their fingernails when under stress. Biting one’s nails has been recognized as a sign of anxiety since the 1500s, though the noun, nail-biter, only came into use in the mid-twentieth century. Nail-biter is a hyphenated compound word. A compound word is a word derived from two or more separate words used together to create another word. Compound words are new words that have a different meaning than the definitions of the original words. 


It was a nail-biter for me to be her caregiver until the time she could get the right legal documents in place. (AARP Magazine)

After trailing by four runs, Central East Maui rallied to edge Kawaihau 6-5 in a nail-biter at the Hawaii State Little League Majors (10-12) State Tournament at Dorvin Leis Field at Kalama Park. (Maui News)

This nail-biter election generated the highest U.S. voter turnout rate in 120 years (Fortune)

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