The Massachusetts Medievalist on stepmothers and hangnails

Like many New Englanders, the Massachusetts medievalist struggles with dry skin as winter drags on, and with dry skin comes hangnails.  As I was emptying yet another tube of hand cream, I remembered that my mother always called them “stepmothers” (I didn’t learn the term “hangnail” until I went to college). And since it is much more fun to engage in historical linguistic detective work than to read undergraduate papers, off I went down the rabbit hole.

The phrase “stepmother’s blessing” is listed as a synonym for hangnail or “agnail” in the venerable Oxford English Dictionary as a dialect entry. The irony comes from the ill intent of the stepmother, since her “blessing” is nothing more than an irritated and surprisingly painful bit of torn skin.

screenshot of OED entry

But my mother never used the “blessing” part – just the noun, as in “you need to trim that stepmother” or “don’t pick at that stepmother.” The OED quotations place the dialectical usage in Leeds and Cheshire, both in the northern part of England.  I know basically nothing about the immigration story on my mother’s side of the family, but now I suspect northern England must be involved in some way.

Since I try to use a number of my mother’s odd usages and pronunciations as a way to keep her memory alive, I hereby add “stepmother” as a replacement for “hangnail” to my active vocabulary.

“stepmother, n.”. OED Online. December 2019. Oxford University Press.