Q: Is the “nag” who’s constantly scolding people related to the “nag” that’s a tired old horse?
A: No, the noun for someone who complains or criticizes isn’t related to the much earlier equine term, which referred to a small riding horse, not one on its last legs, when it showed up in Middle English in the 14th century.
The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary for the older term is from a household account in England for 1336-37: “Item in i ferro anteriore pro le nagg” (“Item: 1 front shoe for the nag”). Published in Household Accounts from Medieval England (1992), by C. M. Woolgar.
The OED says “nag” originally meant “a small riding-horse or pony,” but now usually refers to “an old or feeble” horse. The usage is of uncertain origin, but it perhaps came from neighen, a Middle English verb meaning to neigh (hnǣgan in Old English), according to the dictionary.
Oxford cites the University of Michigan’s online Middle English Dictionary for the “neigh” origin, but adds that it “presents phonological difficulties.” The MED apparently agrees, since it introduces the etymology with a question mark.
Another possible source for the equine “nag” is negge, a word for a small horse in early modern Dutch (spoken about 1500-1800). The OED says Nomenclator, a 1567 dictionary by the Dutch scholar Hadrianus Junius, gives “nagge” as English for negge. However, Nomenclator appeared more than two centuries after “nagg” was used in that medieval household account cited above.
As for the scolding sense of “nag,” it didn’t have quite the same meaning when it first appeared in the Yorkshire dialect of the late 17th century. An entry for “gnag” in a glossary of contemporary provincial expressions defined it as “to gnaw, bite at something hard,” the OED says.
The glossary was unpublished when its author, White Kennett, an Anglican bishop, died in 1728. Oxford University Press, which published a critical edition of the work in 2018 in Etymological Collections of English Words and Provincial Expressions, dates it to the late 1690s.
The OED’s next citation for the verb has the usual spelling: “Nag, to gnaw at anything hard” (from A Glossary of North Country Words, 1825, by the British antiquarian John Trotter Brockett).
The scolding sense of “nag” showed up a few years later. Oxford cites another dialectal dictionary: “Knag, to wrangle, to quarrel, to raise peevish objections” (The Dialect of Craven, in the West-Riding of the County of York, 1828, by William Carr).
The following OED citation has the usual spelling: “The servant writes … to know whether Mrs. Squaw nags” (The Life and Remains of Douglas Jerrold, an 1859 biography by the English journalist William Blanchard Jerrold about his father, a dramatist and journalist).
As for the noun “nag,” the earliest Oxford example is spelled “knag” in the Cumberland dialect of the mid-19th century, in which it meant an act of nagging: “Theer was glee’ an’ Jenn’an’ Jenny Reed, / Aw’ knag, an’ clash, an’ saunter” (The Songs and Ballads of Cumberland, 1866, by Sidney Gilpin).
The dictionary’s first example with the usual spelling is a reference in a London newspaper to “a counter piece of nag in some German Standard” (the Westminster Gazette, Nov. 26, 1894).
Finally, the earliest OED citation for the noun used to mean “a person who habitually nags or finds fault” is from a book by the wife of George Armstrong Custer about her life with the cavalry commander: “To accept the position of ‘nag’ and ‘torment’ was far from desirable” (Boots and Saddles, 1855, by Elizabeth Bacon Custer).
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