It occurs to me that a word I used in my last tasting note may have some of you biting your nails in anticipation of a note on it – or simply in stress at having it cause a hiccup in your ocular saccades. Indeed, its arrangement of letters is so strange to the anglophone eye, it is fairly prone to being misread as, perhaps, onchyophagia. It doesn’t help that the second vowel is represented by the letter y, which does not always represent a vowel and often represents a rather constricting liquid (I don’t mean strychnine lemonade, I mean the phoneme /j/). To add to this, the ch represents /k/, not the affricate it sometimes stands for, and, at least to me, that orthographical representation seems rather more clenching and catching than the blocky k.
So: say with me: “On. Ick. Oh. Fay. Jah.” That’s not the actual syllable division, of course – consonants cling more readily to syllable beginnings than to syllable ends – but if you say it quickly you’re right there, especially if – as you probably will – you put the stress on “on” and “fay”. You may notice that it does a neat tour of the three points of articulation of English obstruants: tip of the tongue, back of the tongue, lips (and teeth), and tip of the tongue again.
Now write it: o-n-y-c-h-o, pause for breath or to file your nails, p-h-a-g-i-a. See? That first half looks kinda like honcho, but it really has much more in common with onyx, which you may know names a kind of stone. The root, Greek ονυξ onux, relates to fingernails and toenails (doesn’t that Greek letter for /ks/, ξ, look like it might have overgrown toenails?). Our word nail as in fingernail is also cognate with onyx – and French ongle, of course. And since you know by now that phagia refers to eating, you know that onychophagia refers to biting one’s fingernails, either incidentally or compulsively.
But, hey, this word may seem ugly, but it’s not so bad in comparison with onychogryphosis, which is a truly nasty-looking word for a not-especially-pretty condition: excessive nail growth, with thickening and curvature. The sort of thing that might well lend itself to onychophagia – though perhaps not, given that it usually affects the toenails. Which would really put the “ick” in onychophagia.