Quick Reference

The little white specks, sometimes seen on the nails of the left hand, signify gifts on the thumb; friends on the first finger; foes on the second; lovers on the third; a journey to be undertaken on the fourth. This meaning given to specks on the nails was so widely known that many people called the marks ‘gifts’ or ‘presents’. The first documentary evidence for the belief occurs in Ben Jonson's play The Alchemist (1610, I. iii) and Sir Thomas Browne was sceptical about it as one of his ‘vulgar errors’ (Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1672 edn.), book 5, chapter 23). The belief was still being reported at least as late as the 1960s. Other meanings have been given to the marks, however. In Melton's Astrologaster (1620), 45), he writes ‘… to have yellow speckles on the nailes of ones hand is a great signe of death’.

A widely reported and relatively constant belief about babies' nails is that you must not cut them before the child is a year old, the mother must bite them off to keep them short. If you ignore this advice, the child will grow up to be a thief. The first written references occur in the mid-19th century (e.g. Denham Tracts, 1895: ii. 24) and it was still being reported in the 1980s. A slightly different idea was noted from a Dorset woman and included in N&Q (1s:4 (1851), 54): she was seen cutting her children's nails over an open Bible, and was asked why, ‘I always, when I cut the nails of my children, let the cuttings fall on the open Bible, that they may grow up to be honest. They will never steal, if the nails are cut over the Bible!’

Removable parts of the body such as hair and fingernails are particularly useful for anyone wishing to harm you with any form of witchcraft and should therefore be disposed of carefully. On the other hand, their intimate association with the person means they are also useful in cures. The idea that it matters when you cut your nails is also as old as the 16th century. Most authorities agree that Monday is the best day, and Friday and Sunday should be avoided at all costs. Some have a useful rhyme such as the following from East Anglia:Cut them on Monday, you cut them for healthCut them on Tuesday, you cut them for wealthCut them on Wednesday, you cut them for newsCut them on Thursday, a new pair of shoesCut them on Friday, you cut them for sorrowCut them on Saturday, see your true-love tomorrowCut them on Sunday, the devil will be with you all the week(Forby, 1830:411)

Nails should also be cut at the waning of the moon, and at sea should only be pared during a storm (otherwise it will cause one).

See also: FINGERS; HAIROpie and Tatem, 1989: 273–6; Lean, 1903: ii. 267–8, 292–3 (and others); Roud, 2003: 184–7.

Reference entries