What Does Fight Tooth and Nail Mean?

Fight Tooth and Nail Meaning

Definition: To struggle as hard as possible.

People say this when describing a literal, physical fight or a metaphorical fight. The analogy is obvious. If you fight tooth and nail, you are fighting with all of your fervor, scratching and biting trying to win.

Origin of Fight Tooth and Nail

This idiom dates back to the 1500s and comes from the idea of fighting like a wild beast. Animals don’t have weapons, so they fight with everything that they’ve got: their teeth and nails.

Charles Dickens famously used the phrase in David Copperfield (1850):

  • I got at it tooth and nail.

Examples of Fight Tooth and Nail

origin of tooth and nailIn this conversation, two high school students are talking about a debate championship that recently occurred.

Lisa: Hey! How was the debate? Did you guys win?

Jackie: Unfortunately, no. We lost.

Lisa: Oh no! What happened? You guys practiced incredibly hard.

Jackie: I know, and we fought tooth and nail. We tried as hard as we could, but the team we were competing against was just too good. They were a lot better than us. We never had a chance.

Lisa: I’m sorry to hear that.

Jackie: Thanks!

fighting tooth and nail idiomIn the dialogue below, two friends are discussing how one of them recently had to fight a mugger.

Seth: Hey, Jimmy, are you okay? What happened to your eye?

Jimmy: Is my black eye that obvious? I thought the bruise had healed enough that no one would notice.

Seth: It’s still pretty noticeable. Were you in a fight?

Jimmy: Some guys tried to mug me last week. They wanted to take my wallet.

Seth: And they beat you up to get your money?

Jimmy: They tried! There were only two of them, so I fought them tooth and nail to get them to leave me alone. It finally worked! I’m glad I’ve been taking martial arts classes for a long time!

More Examples

This excerpt is about European politics.

  • Hungary and Poland are both currently fighting tooth and nail with Brussels. The Czech president openly advocates reversing EU policy toward Russia, and a rising far-right party in Slovakia threatens to move the country away from the West and toward Moscow. –Chicago Tribune

This excerpt shows a quote from a man running in an election.

  • “I’ve fought tooth and nail to bring back Illinois because I’m sick and tired of career politicians who are more concerned with taking care of their special interest allies than families like yours,” he wrote. –Chicago Tribune

Summary

The phrase to fight tooth and nail means to use all one’s effort to win against someone or to overcome some problem.