Dear jwz, keep your hands out of your mouth. Love, jwz.

To my eternal shame, I bite my nails.

I have quit many times -- sometimes for years at a time. I remember the first time I actually bought nail clippers, and thought, at last this is licked! Oh ho ho. I do empathize with smokers on this.

So, I went to the dentist last week, and filled out one of those questionnaires about injuries and allergies and so on, and one of the questions was:

    Are you under an unusual amount of stress?  Y / N 

My gut reaction was, hell yes! My job makes me crazy. Especially lately! But then I reconsidered, because, this nightclub has always made me crazy and I've been at this, and stressed, for quite a few years now. But before that? Well, my previous job sure stressed me the fuck out. And the one before that, etc. so I guess I've been stressed since I became employed full time, so, age 17? Oh wait, high school! Fucking hated that, let me tell you. And middle school was no walk in the park, and elementary school was even worse...

So, an unusual level of stress? What would be my basis for comparison? When I was five years old?

I circled N.

Anyway, I passed my dental visit with flying colors (my mouth is awesome, thanks) with the one caveat, "This tooth right here, right up front: you grind your teeth. Knock it off."

Yesterday I chipped that tooth. While biting my nails.

So now every time my tongue finds that chip, it's a very vivid reminder to keep my fucking hands out of my fucking mouth.

I have not bit my nails in almost 24 hours. Go me. This time for sure.

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28 Responses:

  1. Adam Fields says:

    And he lived happily ever after, to the end of his days.

  2. NelC says:

    Good luck with that. (I never lasted longer than a week.)

  3. Joe says:

    The Cenobites seem to have taken a toll on the gums though.

  4. Elusis says:

    When Jess explained the concept of a "lesbian dating manicure" to me, I started cutting my nails short on a regular basis and have never bitten again.

    Flaked off polish, oh sure, but not bitten.

    • Ben Brockert says:

      This page is now my top google result for that phrase, with no relevant further results. Can you explain it for the ignorant?

      • Ben Brockert says:

        (Which is not to say totally ignorant; I have on more than one occassion said "shit, I can't do that, I have fingernails". But I thought it was an issue of shortness, which vigorous chewing would accomplish.)

  5. skreidle says:

    I've found that the only viable solution for me is "always have nail clippers handy." I have two in my bedside table (one large, one small), one in the coffee table drawer where we watch TV, and one in each vehicle I drive. :)

  6. guns says:

    What you dislike about nail clippers is the strange impotent feeling under your fingernails after you trim them.

    Try cutting a notch into the side of the protruding nail with a knife, then use that foothold to rip off the excess nail with the fingers of your other hand. This provides much of the same visceral satisfaction of nail biting (occasional bloody mistake and all) without the associated dental trauma.

    • phuzz says:

      just the thought of doing that has scared me.

      Also, my new boss seems to have the habit of biting the little bits of skin on the end of his fingers (I have no idea if there's a proper name for them), and I now have to resist slapping his hand away from his mouth every time I see him do it.
      Actually, as he's a year younger than me maybe I'd get away with it.

      • James C. says:

        There is indeed a proper name for the soft tissue surrounding the border of the nail, it’s called paronychium, from Greek παρα- ‘around’ + ὀνυχ- ‘nail’, thence via medical Latin. Infection of this, which happens very frequently among nail biters, is called paronychia. The hard skin that isn’t nail is called eponychium, and the part of this along the bottom of the nail is conventionally called ‘cuticle’.

        In other onychial linguistic news, the term hangnail has nothing originally to do with hang, but is instead from Old English angnægl, which is ang ‘tight, painful’ + nægl ‘nail’. A dialectal form in Modern English is agnail, preserving the older form. The ang component is cognate with the same form in Modern German Angst and Modern Dutch angst.

  7. trollop says:

    My mother always thought I bit my nails. But I only bite my nails when they get ragged edges. I hate that. Plus I have thin nails so it ended in disaster. I now use these nail strips called incoco. They're awesome. They make my nails strong like everyone elses. Actually it's rather like having car paint on my nails, it's smooth and shiny. They last about 2 weeks.
    It's awesome! I have nails that I have to trim because they get to long.
    I could totally see you in the Urban Jungle.

    Maybe you could get something else to chew on?

    Also perhaps a cat? They're calming. I think this fellow would be perfect, he's black so the cat hair won't show. I met him, he's an awesome little kitty. I want to adopt him but it's been poo pooed.

    • Rae says:


      Hi, I'm Rae; I'm a carpenter and I like to wear nail polish. I'ma try the Incoco stuff, thanks.

      • trollop says:

        It's great stuff! I lke it better than the sally hansen ones.
        Make sure to rub the edges down really well when you first put them on so that the edges don't lift up. And I recommend using a good top coat every other day, with out it you might only get a week.
        Such as deborah lippmann hard rock, or the zoya armor topcoat

        And actually zoya works pretty well too. I can get it to last about a week which is nothing short of a miracle. I'm a printmaker, so it's rough on my nails. If you do the anchor base coat, with some colors, like trixie and then do the armor top coat, and reapply the top coat every day. And yes it really is that shiny! Other colors that seem to work well are the foil colors, like izzy.

        Jamie I think trixie would also suit you!

        • erinn says:

          I do brazilian jiu-jitsu five times a week and like to wear nail polish. Surprisingly, holding on to people's gis for dear life has not impacted the polish too much, but I'm still gonna get some of that Zoya. And thanks for the Incoco link too!

  8. Mark Welch says:

    Now that I have a partner again, I keep an emery board by my bed, to sand off the sharp edges that form after I bite my nails. And, I would have told the doctor/dentist that I'm perpetually stressed, fwiw.

  9. I don't bite my nails, I bite the skin around my nails, and the skin on the knuckle of my thumbs. I have giant calluses on both of them from chewing on my own thumbs. But my nails are fine!

    Also, I discovered I grind my teeth, so now I have to wear a mouth guard when I sleep. I'm hoping I get to a point where I'm less stressed out all the time so I can drop that particular affectation, it makes me drool.

  10. pavel_lishin says:

    I remember reading, somewhere, that one sure-fire way of preventing yourself from chewing on your nails is to make sure your nails taste awful - I think some companies even sell some vile liquid you can dip your fingers in. It tastes bad, but doesn't smell.

    The obvious downsides are accidentally getting a taste when eating a sandwich, or basically anything involving sexy time. Also, the knowledge that you're training yourself much like you train a cat not to eat cables by spraying them with something gross.

    • Dave says:

      Pavel my parents tried that on me when I was fairly young, and yeah the stuff tastes pretty foul, but you get used to it pretty quick. Much like smoking, really, where the strong pleasure/taste combination eventually devolves into some bizarre kind of stockholm syndrome with the foul taste. I'm sure there's a nifty cogsci term for this type of thing.

    • Jake Nelson says:

      What stopped me biting my nails is when I started working overnight stock, and my hands were always filthy. I started to bring them up to my mouth and stopped, looked at them, was grossed out, and didn't. After long enough, it finally broke the habit.

      Now I have the problem of remembering to trim them - never used to have to, so it's weird, and I keep ending up with talons.

  11. erinn says:

    I also used to bite my nails and yeah, relapses suck. It's been about six years for me. Whenever I do have a relapse, I just allow myself to focus on one nail (like my pinky) and then I go all drill sergeant about it and shellack the shit out of all of them in order to prevent further biting and after a week or so I get a nice manicure. You quit for years at a time before though -- what made you go back? Either way, sorry about your tooth, and good luck. It's a hard habit to kick.

  12. DaveL says:

    I did the same thing, and ended up with extremely worn teeth and ultimately caps on the top and bottom left side. The result is that my bite no longer quite enables me to bite my nails (or the little bits of skin near them, or /TMI /TMI /TMI).

    So I use nail clippers, and I have one in each location (work, home) where I sit down for long periods.

    Good news is (/jwzrelevant) I have no frickin' wisdom teeth (mutation, I guess) and no cavities (/cheer fluoridation).

  13. Andy Baio says:

    I was biting my fingernails when this post came up in Google Reader. It creeped me out.

  14. Doug Johnson says:

    I'm with DaveL. I bit my nails for decades and was never able to quit for long. Then one of the visits to the dentist changed my bite, and now I can't get the grip required for the full shredding. Of course, with longer nails, it is possible to do a lot more damage by picking at hangnails, but life is full of tradeoffs...

  15. PDP says:

    Since we're talking about your teeth again, a question that's been bugging me for like 8 years: Do you know if your wisdom teeth story from the old inspired the similar but even more exaggerated digressionary bit in Cryptonomicon? It seems possible from the timing and the fact that Mr Stephenson was probably spending a lot of time on the internet when he wrote the book. You probably have no idea, but I'll ask and maybe at least the question will stop popping into the back of my head every time you make a personal dentistry post.

  16. I've only been successful at quitting biting my nails for a few months at a time. My last relapse started a couple of months ago. I also grind my teeth, I have painful spots on my molars from where the enamel wound away. My dentist had me fitted for a mouth guard that I wear at night now. It's pretty crappy, but I guess it beats grinding my teeth down to nubs.