Definition of nail in English:

Share this entry


Pronunciation: /nāl/


Image of nail
1A small metal spike with a broadened flat head, driven typically into wood with a hammer to join things together or to serve as a peg or hook.
Example sentences
  • I also need a hammer and nails, picture hooks and the step ladder.
  • My grandad was an engineer by trade and we had loads of tools and boxes of nails, screws, hooks and no end of other fixings.
  • Bolts, nails and other metal scrap are dangerously strewn about on the bridges posing threat not only to the pedestrians but to the vehicles as well.
tack, spike, pin, rivet;
finishing nail, roofing nail, hobnail, brad
2A horny covering on the upper surface of the tip of the finger and toe in humans and other primates.
Example sentences
  • Longitudinal striations are accentuated ridges in the nail surface that can occur as a normal part of the aging process.
  • The dorsal fold that lies on the surface of the nail is the eponychium, or cuticle.
  • Some of those patients had toenails so thick that they had outgrown the average nail clipper long ago.
fingernail, thumbnail, toenail
2.1An animal’s claw.
Example sentences
  • In mammals, alpha-keratin is found in hair, bristles, hooves, nails, and claws as well as in soft skin.
  • All toes except the hallux have claws; the hallux has a nail.
  • According to zoo officials, the stuffing is almost over and finishing touches are being given to the animal's eyes and nails.
2.2A hard growth on the upper mandible of some soft-billed birds.
Example sentences
  • Walking on land, they pick up food with the nail of their bill or strip seed heads and foliage with the bill's edge.
3 historical A medieval unit of measurement.
3.1A measure of length for cloth, equal to 2 1/4 inches.
3.2A measure of wool, beef, or other commodity, roughly equal to 7 or 8 pounds.


[with object]
1Fasten to a surface or to something else with a nail or nails: nail the edge framing to the wall the teacher was nailing up the lists
More example sentences
  • Secure each additional board to the furring strips by nailing diagonally through the top edge of the tongue.
  • Boards nailed on tree trunks frequently advertise computer training institutes, he said.
  • So the shelter was finished, the tin roof nailed down and the walls re-enforced.
fasten, attach, fix, affix, secure, tack, hammer, pin
2 informal Expose (someone) as deceitful or criminal; catch or arrest: have you nailed the killer?
More example sentences
  • The police, through hours and hours and hours of work, nailed that criminal.
  • The only people who can nail the perpetrators are the reporters who heard the leaks.
  • Detectives hunting a gunman who executed a father-of-three in a gangland murder have appealed to the criminal underworld to help nail the killer.
catch, capture, apprehend, arrest, seize
informal collar, nab, pull in, pick up
2.1Expose (a lie or other instance of deception).
Example sentences
  • The Clerk of the Senate nailed that lie five years ago when he pointed out the Constitution makes clear federal law takes precedence over state law.
  • Let me finally nail the lie that service pensions are free.
  • Must we wait another twenty years to nail this other lie to the wall as by then it will be too late for this radio station.
3 American Football , informal Tackle the quarterback or ballcarrier, especially at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Example sentences
  • His best asset is a relentless attitude about nailing the ballcarrier on every play.
3.1 Baseball (Of a fielder) put (a runner) out by throwing to a base: he dropped a perfect throw home that should have nailed Joe by yards
More example sentences
  • Even if the throws don't nail runners, the goal is to keep them close enough so they can't score on singles.
  • A great defensive play to nail the lead runner would have left a man on 1st with 1 out, a run expectancy of 0.573.
  • For a split-second I thought he might have a shot at an inside-the-park homer, though a strong throw probably would have nailed him.
3.2chiefly North American (Of a player) defeat or outwit (an opponent): Navratilova tried to nail her on the backhand side
More example sentences
  • He held a narrow 8-7 advantage at the first bell, but turned on the style in the second round and nailed his opponent with some brilliant combinations.
  • The object is to hit your opponent while avoiding being nailed yourself.
  • The sharpshooter kept the West in the game down the stretch, nailing a couple jumpers to keep the score close.
3.3(Of a player) secure (especially a victory) conclusively: there’s no doubt I had chances to nail it in the last set
More example sentences
  • Last, but not least, for the first time in this league race, the Ibrox men entered into the encounter knowing pole position would be nailed with a victory.
  • His final birdie putt pulled him level with defending champion who failed to nail his own birdie putt for victory.
  • Though Kandy had the edge in the scrums and lineouts, the tough Sailors with their bruising play nailed their opponents.
perform well, succeed in, execute, complete, bring about/off
informal land, pull off, score
4 vulgar slang, chiefly US (Of a man) have sexual intercourse with (someone).



fight tooth and nail

see tooth.

hard as nails

(Of a person) very tough; completely callous or unfeeling.
Example sentences
  • ‘One of these days you're going to say something like that and someone is going to hurt you for it,’ he hissed, his voice cold and hard as nails.
  • Lisa, who's hard as nails, was clearly having none of it, and handed the woman a ten pound note for the £12.70 charge, saying ‘I don't care if your children do starve’.
  • Women are soft like fluffy cotton, men are hard as nails and plywood.
callous, hard-hearted, heartless, unfeeling, unsympathetic, uncaring, insensitive, unsentimental, hard-bitten, tough, lacking compassion

a nail in the coffin

An action or event regarded as likely to have a detrimental or destructive effect on a situation, enterprise, or person: this was going to put the final nail in the coffin of his career
More example sentences
  • The Huntmaster said: ‘It is a nail in the coffin but they have got a few more to get in yet before we are gone completely.’
  • But while I am cognizant of the slippery slope, I think it's silly to say that every less-than-ideal action is a nail in the coffin of liberty.
  • Genetically modified crops could put a nail in the coffin of traditional and organic farming in the area.

on the nail

British (Of payment) without delay.
Example sentences
  • Why denigrate cash on the nail as a motive for art?
  • Pretty much everyone who couldn't afford to put cash on the barrelhead for a place at the banquet.
  • The other is to fight fire with fire and put our own cash on the barrelhead.

Phrasal verbs


nail someone down

Elicit a firm promise or commitment from someone: I can’t nail her down to a specific date
More example sentences
  • I want people to know when they come to a show that it's going to be all over the place and that it's fun without having to nail us down to any other expectation.
  • Cos the last time a target was just a lofty goal, not a commitment or a promise. Let's nail him down this time.
  • Now, I am not looking to nail you down about what material you want to put on - I understand that those things are dependent upon how the material shapes - but what time are we looking at?

nail something down

1Fasten something securely with nails.
Example sentences
  • Solutions to this petty thievery include nailing things down, making the waitstaff responsible for keeping an eye on items, and sometimes just not using the top of the line accoutrements anymore.
  • To help keep tips curved up, some skiers attached a wire to the tip and stretched it taut, nailing it down to a point lower on the ski.
  • Once you have nailed things down pretty well, I recommend using the third method, explained below.
2Identify something precisely: something seems unexpected—I can’t nail it down, but it makes me uneasy
More example sentences
  • I'll keep thinking about it and see if I can nail it down a little more precisely.
  • But the story by now has become a rollercoaster, and I am an agnostic until someone nails it down.
  • And because it's of course in our backyard - we're based down here - we had some very good sources and we were able to nail this story down.
3Secure something, especially an agreement: the company has finally nailed down the agreement with its distributors
More example sentences
  • He has had opportunities to win the job but hasn't come close to nailing it down.
  • Until common standards, definitions and interpretations are nailed down and agreed, participants in future talks may as well be speaking two different languages.
  • That's the great danger that nothing about this handover has been nailed down, nothing that - you can't say the ink has not dried yet - the document hasn't been written yet.



Example sentences
  • This is a completely nailless system that snaps together for to form a smooth seam and pull apart easily.
  • The straw roofs and nailless construction techniques are endlessly fascinating and there is an interesting pamphlet available in English.
  • Our products are nailless and easy to assemble.


Old English nægel (noun), næglan (verb), of Germanic origin; related to Dutch nagel and German Nagel, from an Indo-European root shared by Latin unguis and Greek onux.

  • When the word nail emerged in the Old English period it already had its main modern meanings of ‘small metal spike’ and ‘fingernail’. To nail a lie is to expose a falsehood, an idiom known from the early nineteenth century. The reference is most likely to shopkeepers nailing forged coins to their shop counter to expose them and put them out of circulation. If money is paid on the nail it is paid without delay, immediately. The phrase may come from the Satires of the Roman poet Horace, who used ad ungulum, ‘on the nail’, to mean ‘to perfection’ or ‘to the utmost’. This referred either to Roman sculptors making the finishing touches to their work with a fingernail, or to carpenters using a fingernail to test the accuracy of a joint. An American equivalent was on the barrelhead, an upturned barrel being a simple shop counter.

Words that rhyme with nail

ail, ale, assail, avail, bail, bale, bewail, brail, Braille, chain mail, countervail, curtail, dale, downscale, drail, dwale, entail, exhale, fail, faille, flail, frail, Gael, Gail, gale, Grail, grisaille, hail, hale, impale, jail, kale, mail, male, webmail, nonpareil, outsail, pail, pale, quail, rail, sail, sale, sangrail, scale, shale, snail, stale, swale, tail, tale, they'll, trail, upscale, vail, vale, veil, surveil, wail, wale, whale, Yale

For editors and proofreaders

Syllabification: nail

Share this entry

What do you find interesting about this word or phrase?

Comments that don't adhere to our Community Guidelines may be moderated or removed.