Week fifty-two: ONYCHITE (probability 10785), by David Sutton

When I presented the alphagram of this word in one of my recent 'Not So Tough Twenty' quizzes, it defeated, I am told, the combined efforts of four of Australia's finest! It is indeed an odd-looking word, but readily explained as derived from the Greek onychos, fingernail or talon. It means 'onyx marble' (onyx itself having of course the same derivation) and the association with finger-nails seems to be based on colour.

The same root gives us several other words that may be difficult to spot. ONYCHA is the nail-like operculum of a mollusc (the operculum being the bit over the entrance to a shell; it is also a fancy word for a coal-hole cover in a pavement). ONYCHA was employed as an ingredient in the incense used in Mosaic ritual: apparently opercula emit a penetrating aroma when burnt.

ONYCHA is not to be confused with ONYCHIA, which is inflammation of the nail-bed (also known as ONYCHITIS). Then we have ONYCHIUM, which is a pulvillus in insects, a pulvillus being a pad between the claws of an insect's foot; the word means 'little cushion', being a diminutive of Latin pulvinus, cushion.

Moving on to the less useful, we have ONYCHOCRYPTOSIS, the painful condition more popularly known as ingrowing toenail, and ONYCHOMANCY, divination by the fingernails. Finally, ONYCHOPHAGY is the biting of one's fingernails, a common reaction to stressful situations, such as, apparently, being presented with the alphagram CEHINOTY...


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