Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Episode 207: Fighting Tooth and Nail

This week Shauna and Dan delve into the history books to learn about Fighting Tooth and Nail, including when we started adding word like "fight" in front of the more common "tooth and nail". Bonus: Hipster Blacksmiths, Cultist Communions, and the best Stage Musicals. #BunnyTrails


Click to read the show notes


 Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 207: Fighting Tooth and Nail
Record Date: September 17, 2023
Air Date: September 20, 2023


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Dan Pugh

And I’m Shauna Harrison

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook
Have you ever wanted something so badly that you’d be willing to do almost anything for it? Maybe a promotion at work or longer-term, your dream job. Have you ever looked at a situation and known that you would have to give it your all to make it through? When the stakes are high enough - whether survival or a desperate desire - these are the times we’re willing to fight tooth and nail.


Tooth and nail means a person intends to use every effort to accomplish something or that they will not easily be dissuaded from a plan or action. Essentially, they will do anything in their power to have their desired outcome.

Dan, any ideas on where this phrase originated?

There is a theory that the phrase originated with people describing animals fighting and comparing people to using animalistic behaviors during extreme situations. Another theory is that it’s just natural for humans to resort to biting and clawing if they are desperate to save their own lives and therefore, the phrase just happened naturally.

The truth is…. Unknown. It shows up in the early 1500s… which is a really long time ago and honestly, lots of literature has been lost to time. There are literal uses of tooth and nail prior to the idiomatic version. However, none of the experts have found any indication that there was a transition of the phrase from literal to figurative that could be tracked in literature. Since I found nothing to the contrary, we’ll trust them on this one.

Here is the definition from Oxford English Dictionary,
tooth and nail (originally with tooth and nail)
adverbial phr.: literal with the use of one's teeth and nails as weapons; by biting and scratching:
almost always figurative, in the way of vigorous attack, defence, or action generally; vigorously, fiercely, with one's utmost efforts, with all one's might.
End Quote

So, the phrase was frequently paired with the word “with” as in fight with tooth and nail - or - go after them with tooth and nail and so on. I didn’t find this to be the only form but it was common. In modern usage, it is typically used as simply tooth and nail applied to whatever activity a person is participating in. It is frequently paired with fight but does not have to be.  

The oldest attestation in print is from a work by Sir Thomas More titled A dialoge of comfort against tribulacion originally written around 1535. It was published officially in 1553. Here is the excerpt.
They would fayne kepe them as long as euer they mighte, euen with tooth and nayle.
End Quote

I was also able to find a reference in a 1550 work by Thomas Cranmer titled, A Defence of the True and Catholic doctrine of the sacrament of the body and blood of our savior Christ, with a confutation of sundry errors concerning the same, grounded and established upon God’s holy word, approved by the consent of the most ancient doctors of the Church.
This bread which our lord gave to his disciples, changed in nature but not in outward form, is by the omnipotency of God’s word, made flesh.
Here the Papistes stick tooth and nail to these words: changed in nature.
End Quote

I thought this one was interesting as it is such an early usage. This shows that the phrase was being used figuratively and not mentioning animals or brutal battles. In this case, it is speaking about the politics of the Church and arguing its doctrine. The Papists in this passage were not out biting and scratching people.

Next is a work published in 1611 - The historie of Judith, in forme of a Poeme by Guillaume de SALUSTE DU BARTAS, Josuah Sylvester. The excerpt I’ll be reading is from a section that was discussing the second day of the creation of the Earth, specifically the creation of the Elements.
Those, whose effects do wholly contradict,
Longer and stronger strive in their conflict.
The hot-dry fire to cold-moist water turns not;
The cold-dry earth, to hot-moist aire, returns not,
Returns not eas’ly’ for (still opposite)
With tooth and nail as deadly foes they fight.
End Quote

Just a few years later, the phrase appears in the work The Scoffer Scoffed, The Second Part. Being Certain Select Dialogues, of a Merry Wagg of Antiquity. Newly Put Into English Fustian, for the Consolation of Those that Had Rather Laugh and be Merry, Then be Merry and Wise. This was published in 1614. This piece is listed as a parody or imitation and is compared to Virgil. It includes conversations between characters such as Hercules, Jupiter, Charon, etc. The bit with our phrase in it is from the Dialogue between Crates and Diogenes.
Which Wealth is more to be desir'd,
Tho not of late so much Admir'd;
You ne're saw any come to us,
To learn how to be Virtuous;
Whereas you see they never fail
Pursuing Riches, Tooth and Nail;
While others striving to be Great,
Admiring Titles, Pomp and State;
End Quote;view=fulltext

In this usage, the phrase is conclusively figurative and applied in the sense that means they are giving all they can to their purpose - every effort, all resources… in this case, in the pursuit of riches.

The phrase was used in a 1675 work by William Camden - The History of the Most Renowned and Victorious Princess Elizabeth, Late Queen of England: Containing All the Most Important and Remarkable Passages of State, Both at Home, and Abroad (so Far as They Were Linked with English Affairs) During Her Long and Prosperous Reign.

they enter into serious Consultation about the best way and manner of Invading England. Don Alvares Balano,Marques of Santia Cruce, to whom was committed the principall Charge and Conduct of the Armada, was of.Opinion, that first of all some Port-town in Holland or Zeland should unawares be surprised by the Prince of Parma's | Land-forces and some Spanish Ships fent beforehand, where the Spanish Fleet might have safe Harbour and a Place of Retreat,and from whence it might conveniently attempt the Invasion; considering that the Fleet could not ride safely in the unquiet British Sea, where the Winds often changed, and wherein the Tides were Specially to be observed. With him agreed in Opinion the Prince of Parma, who urged this Expedition tooth and nail.
End Quote

The phrase continued to be used into the 1700s. We’re going to skip to the end of that century for our next one. The phrase is used in a comment on global politics in the November 30, 1798 edition of the Virginia Argus out of Richmond, Virginia.
Every preparation is making in the kingdom of Naples for active war.
There are no hopes of a solid peace, on the result of the negotiations at Rastadt.
The deputation of the empire, in their conclusum, stick, "tooth and nail," to their demand for the restoration of Kehl and Caffel, which the French are in possession of on the right bank of the Rhine.
End Quote

Politics always takes the stage in our phrase usage. Here is another from the New-York daily tribune, April 29, 1846, out of New-York [N.Y.].
The hostility of the ship-owners to the reduction of the duty on the timber of the Baltic as well as that of Canada, is as fierce as ever; and the singular anomaly presents itself of men fighting tooth and nail against a measure which has for its object to reduce materially the expense of ship-building.
The proprietors of our " wooden walls" sin, in their conduct, against the sagacity which guides the rest of mankind in their business habits and feelings.
End Quote

It definitely wasn’t used lightly in this context. Essentially, the cost of wood from Canada and the Baltic would be less expensive to acquire. Ship-owners were entirely opposed to this. Whether they were hoping to protect their own economic advantage or had some other reason for the opposition, I’m not sure. But the writer of the article is basically calling them idiots for fighting against something that at face value seems like it would be good for them.

The Richmond palladium and sun-telegram, October 18, 1908 edition included a full-page article encouraging people to check their ad section. This is an interesting one to me when considering the tactic they used. Here is part of the article,
How many of you middle-aged people who have been renting all your life are satisfied?
What have you to show in the end for the many hard-earned dollars you have paid your landlord? Nothing but a bunch of rent receipts.
The Declaration of Independence was a formal declaration of the facts and principles upon which the protest of arms was based-why not declare YOUR absolute independence of the "RENT MAN" now? Fight him! Fight him hard! Fight him tooth and nail!
End Quote

I don’t like it. I think that’s all I have to say about it… don’t like it. It feels skeevy. And a little propaganda-ish.

Shifting to a different type of shady behavior,
The day book out of Chicago, Illinois, shared a New York story titled Waldo to be the Goat in the main edition on September 12, 1912. The story is about a trial that involves a slew of high-ranking folks including the Mayor, Supreme Court Justices, the District Attorney, Assistant District Attorney, and a Police Lieutenant… and the murder of a famous gambler. Waldo is a Commissioner and the Aldermanic Committee is hoping to get to the mayor through him.

We’ll read a little more from this article in the behind-the-scenes which is available to all Patrons at

Rubin will try to prove that Becker's attorney did not tell the truth about Hot Springs witnesses, and if Whitman can prove this he hopes it will prevent any further delay in Becker's trial.
Becker's attorney intends to fight tooth and nail to put his client's trial off until November at the earliest. He figures that public interest in the case will have died down by then.
End Quote

It seems unlikely that public interest would die down that much in a case like this. It sounds like the kind of case that people just continue to build up to…

We are ready to move to our modern uses, but first, we’d like to say thank you to our sponsors.

A Quick Thank You
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Modern Uses

Tooth and Nail is a song on the 1984 album Agent Provocateur by Foreigner. It has their typical classic rock sound. Here are some of the lyrics,
I'm tired of all this cheap talk,
When you walk next to me.
They say I ain't good enough for you.
Why don't they come and tell me?
When they see us out in the night,
They can't wait to tear us apart.
Now I hear them saying lovin' you ain't right.
Well they'd better be ready, 'cause honey, I'll be there.
I will fight tooth and nail.
Count on me, I will not fail you.
I will fight tooth and nail.
End Quote

Tooth and Nail is a book by Charles Harrington Elster, Joseph Elliot published in 2004
The summary begins,
Both a thrilling mystery and a test-prep masterclass, Tooth and Nail is an entertaining, genius way to conquer the vocabulary section of SATs and ACTs.
End Quote

The preface gives examples of this means by incorporating vocabulary words and the book’s title into its introduction. The preface concludes with,
Finally, challenge yourself every few days to use two or three of your newly acquired SAT words in a pertinent way, either in conversation or in writing.
As you can see, Tooth and Nail will expose you to lots of SAT words in context, but the responsibility for mastering them ultimately lies with you. We hope our “novel approach” will inspire you to assiduously build your word knowledge and fight tooth and nail to ace the SAT.
End quote

Tooth and Nail is a 2007 horror film. IMDB shares this short description,
A group of people in a post-apocalyptic world fight to survive against a band of vicious cannibals.
End Quote

Here is a little more from an anonymous commenter on IMDB.
In a post-apocalyptic world, a small group of survivors, who call themselves Foragers, plan to rebuild civilization from their headquarters in an empty hospital based in what is left of Philadelphia. But they're soon forced into a face-off war with the Rovers, another gang of survivors whom are a brutal gang of cannibals. As the Rovers take out the Foragers one by one, the Foragers must draw on all their resources to stay alive.
End Quote

Tooth and Nail is a 2018 novel by Sara Lunsford. Sara is from Kansas, so we get to feature someone from our state. Okay, here’s a little teaser.
"The Vigilante" was my case. He killed killers. Rapists. Drug-dealing scum. All the ugly crumbs that fell through the cracks of willfully blind justice. I spent five years hunting him until I realized I didn't really want to catch him. So I walked away-from the case, from my failure, from my big-city life in Detroit to start over with my husband in Merryn, Kansas.
My devils came with me. Bodies matching his M.O. were found in a cold storage unit wrapped up in macabre tribute-each victim with some tie to me. He won't let me go, won't let me run. There's part of me that doesn't want him to. It's the same part that wonders if his way might be the only way…
End Quote

This intro goes on to share that she’s found evidence of her own husband’s crimes. Is she the only one who can stop him? Is she a cop or a vigilante herself?

Tooth and Nail Records produces entertainment items in the form of podcasts, music, videos, YouTube series and so on. Here is their About Us info from the website,

Tooth & Nail Records can be traced back to the early ’90s punk and hardcore music scene. Label founder Brandon Ebel became immersed in the network of musicians and promoters who were making waves with their positive messages (whether translated through melodic punk or heavy rock), and wanted to get involved. The label became a force in Christian music circles and niche underground subcultures alike with bands whose broad appeal could not be pigeonholed to a particular crowd.

Nearly a half-dozen Tooth & Nail albums have been certified gold for sales of 500,000 or more copies in the United States, and several bands—Thousand Foot Krutch, Hawk Nelson, and Mae, to name a few—have sold in the 200,000+ range. Tooth & Nail releases have been nominated at the Grammys in the design/packaging and short form video categories, and mewithoutYou, another T&N staple band, earned a coveted MTV Woodie Award.
End Quote

Tooth & Nail Wine Company is based in Paso Robles, California. Here are a few snippets shared from their website.
At Tooth & Nail, the old becomes new. We believe that wine can stay rooted in heritage while becoming unshackled from tradition. Join us.
Each of our brands is distinctively devised to express the native energy of the various regions we source from and pay homage to the beautiful and bountiful Central Coast.
Rather than battle nature, we bottled it–fighting tooth and nail to create wines we could be proud of. Wines that embrace the elements in the pursuit of excellence. Wines for people who simply love wine.
End Quote

Wrap up:
This idiom clearly gets the job done as people have been using it for centuries with the same meaning. Ultimately, we are all animals and I suppose if we resort to using our teeth and nails in a fight… we definitely gave it all we had. Sometimes we have to approach challenges with all of our strength or resources. I feel like that’s what I’ve been doing this semester to keep my grades up… putting all I have into it. Whatever it takes. And this is true for things we’re passionate about. Fighting for a cause or pursuing our dreams - we have to fight tooth and nail. Give it every effort and keep going until you make it happen.

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, send us an email:, or comment on our website


It’s patron poll time!

Recently we posed this question to our Patrons:

What are your favorite musicals?

I'm listing 10 here, based on this article from the BBC. Tell us in comments your favorite (even if it isn't listed here) and why you love it so much!

We gave a list of movies that were listed as the best stage musicals of all time by the BBC. Of those, our Patrons picked:

Hamilton was the top stage musical, with Les Miserable and Chicago tying for second place.

West Side Story, Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, and Jesus Christ Superstar also got some love from our Patrons.

Most of those responding said that their favorites were not on the list.

Emily shared
I’m really surprised Wicked didn’t make the BBC list.
Among my other favorites are: Kinky Boots, The Addams Family, Hairspray, Into the Woods, Newsies, The Secret Garden, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, Something Rotten ….. (Can you tell that musicals are one of my main interests?)
End Quote

Mary said

I too, love musicals, but don't watch them nearly as much as I used to. My tastes have turned to Sci-Fi and fantasy. My very favorite one of late is The Greatest Showman, largely because I went the first time with a friend and her teenage nephew who is disabled. He had always struggled with fitting in and feeling good about himself. He was skeptical about going to a musical, but as we were leaving the theatre, he said that, for the very first time, he could see his own self worth. Musicals can be fun, but they can also carry powerful messages that no other medium can deliver.
End quote

Heather kept her answer short and sweet.
No shame, my favorite musical ever is Newsies. Carry the banner!
End quote

That’s a great answer! Newsies was such an engaging show I understand why it’s Heather’s favorite.

I pretty much love all musicals. I think there have only been a couple that didn’t quite work for me. But the great thing about them is that there are so many options covering an incredibly wide range of topics… basically all of them. Some of my top musicals include Wicked, Into the Woods, Hamilton, The Lion King, Les Mis,

For stage musicals, I like Kiss Me Kate, Wicked, and South Pacific which aren't in the list. I love almost everything featuring Cole Porter's music. DeLovely was a great musical movie. I also love Irving Berlin's White Christmas. I've just added the movie musical Spirited! to my annual watch list, too.

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember,

Words belong to their users.

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