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While the two names nail and screw have similar shapes and functions, why do the verbs differ so much? Someone has screwed something sounds like they have ruined something to me, while someone has nailed something sounds like they have successfully accomplished the thing.

So why have these similar words acquired this much dissimilarity?

From Merriam-Webster:

Screw:

(1) : to mistreat or exploit through extortion, trickery, or unfair actions; especially : to deprive of or cheat out of something due or expected (2) : to treat so as to bring about injury or loss (as to a person's reputation) —often used as a generalized curse


Nail:

to perform or complete perfectly or impressively

From Urban Dictionary (which I am aware is not a reliable source, but sometimes it can be helpful):

Screwed

  1. To be in serious trouble.
  2. A word describing something in a state of disrepair.
  3. A word to describe a person who is heavily under the influence of alcohol and/or narcotic material, to an extent where it affects their behavioural patterns.

    1. "When my parents found out I killed their parrot, I'm screwed!"
    2. "Wow, someone screwed that car up pretty bad!"
    3. "Wow, that guy is screwed!"

Nailed

Having completed a task with great accuracy.

"A+! I nailed that test."

or

"I threw the rock and, nailed that guy between the eyes!"



Update:

It would be invaluable, if someone could elaborate more on the historical etymology of these definitions as well.

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You cannot say “slangs”. It is not a count nount. –  tchrist Sep 1 '13 at 13:43
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Another relevant meaning of screw is "Vulgar Slang: To have sexual intercourse with". I believe this is where the bad connotations of the verb come from. –  terdon Sep 1 '13 at 14:23
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@terdon: Actually, I think the "have sexual intercourse" context is one where the two slang usages can have exactly the same meaning. There are plenty of young men who might say they nailed or screwed some woman, in both cases meaning they had sex with her. –  FumbleFingers Sep 1 '13 at 15:01
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@J.R.: In practice, many if not most people probably perceive different nuances between nail/bang/screw/fuck/shag/etc. But those differences are really just personal perceptions, not inherently attaching to any particular word. One person might say of some particular pair from my list, one word is coarser, more dismissive of the emotional aspects of sex, or whatever, than the other; someone else might make exactly the same distinction the other way around. But I do buy John Lawler's point that on average nailing is more about the action, whereas screwing is more about the consequences. –  FumbleFingers Sep 1 '13 at 21:19
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@FumbleFingers, they’re also formally different: ‘nail’ can only be transitive, while ‘screw’ can be both transitive and intransitive. You can say, “They were screwing all night”, but you cannot say, “They were nailing all night”. Well, you can, but people would think you were losing your marbles. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 1 '13 at 22:03

5 Answers 5

up vote 52 down vote accepted

Nails

‘Nailing’ something is basically the equivalent of hitting the nail on the head. Hitting the nail on the head is, as anyone who’s ever tried hanging a picture on a wall knows, something that requires great precision and the proper application of force (and in my own case, often also the proper application of a few Band-Aids or similar).

As such, it is quite logical that ‘nailing’ something—i.e., fastening it with a nail by delivering one quick blow in exactly the right place to make it sit tight just where it’s supposed to—would acquire the meaning of “to perform or complete perfectly or impressively”.

Screws

Unlike nails, screws are not quickly fastened with one blow. Rather, they must work their way in slowly, and they do so while turning around constantly.

It is a very common metaphor, cross-linguistically, to indicate that something has gone wrong or is not as it should be by likening it to something that turns around or loops out of place. A screw is a good candidate for this.

If a nail gives the mental image of something going straight in, according to a linear projection, just the way it’s supposed to, a screw gives the mental image of something curving, looping, winding around, in an inefficient manner.

Further derivations

Once you’ve got those two basic meanings, it’s very easy to derive further slang terms from them. The nail-based ones are actually remarkably few in number, but the screw-based ones abound: you can screw something up (mess it up), you can be screwy (crazy), you can be screwed (ruined, done for), you can ‘screw it’ (forget it, leave it aside), you can screw someone over (cheat them), you can screw around (fool around), you can screw someone (as in, “Screw you!”, not-so-politely telling them to go to hell), etc.

Interestingly, both ‘nail’ and ‘screw’ can refer to sexual intercourse—but with the very fundamental difference (borne over from the basic meanings of the word) that screwing someone just refers, in a roundabout way, to the general ‘in-out’ motions performed during sex, while nailing someone indicates that there is a nailer and a nailee: one party is ‘using’ the nail, and the other party is implicitly likened to a wall that the nail goes into. In other words, it is quite common for a guy to brag to his friends that he ‘nailed’ a girl; but not very common for a girl to say that she ‘nailed’ a guy.

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The be and get passives aren’t quite the same either. With screw, you easily say “I am so screwed now. He got screwed in that deal.” But it’s rarer with nail. “I got nailed by the cops this morning. He was nailed in the end.” The difference though might be more due to the overall comparative frequency of screw and nail themselves, not just the addition of passives. –  tchrist Sep 1 '13 at 14:13
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I think the difference between the pleasantness of the two metaphors is that screwing is a slow torsion process, fighting friction all the way, whereas nailing is a linear projection of force, and quite rapid. If it's you that's getting nailed or screwed, the question of pain arises, and I think slow twisting incision is likely to be much more painful than one quick shot, and certainly goes on for much longer. –  John Lawler Sep 1 '13 at 14:47
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@JohnLawler, I don’t think most 17-year-old boys give that much thought, though, when they brag to their friends about having ‘nailed’ some girl. In particular, I’m quite sure they don’t think of it then and there as being just one quick shot and then it’s over—even if that’s what it really was! –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 1 '13 at 14:50
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Of course not. What thinking was involved was done a long time ago. In both cases, note that nail means 'select and take', while screw is about the actions involved. Generally, as in They nailed him on the speeding charge, nail has to do with power and dominance, where screw has to do with consequences. Either can be unpleasant, but in different ways. –  John Lawler Sep 1 '13 at 14:55
    
A very nice and well commented answer. (+1) –  Ali Sep 1 '13 at 16:12

On, the other hand "I nailed her last night" and "I screwed her last night" would be taken as having the same meaning.

I'd also note that screwed has yet another meaning, if you "screw up a bit of paper" then you are crumpling it in a ball as you might do on discovering you've messed it up. It's quite possible that "I screwed it up" comes from this usage of "screw" rather than the fastening. "Nailed it", as noted by Janus, may come from "hit the nail on the head".

Seen in this context it doesn't seem that unreasonable that apparently similar concepts have come to have very different slang meanings.

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In fairness, the similarity of connotation in a sexual context doesn't really count. With the correct emphasis (and maybe a wink or nudge), one could use pretty much any verb to indicate intercourse -- just look at the definitions on Urban Dictionary. :) "Man, I sure replied to her post." "He sure corrected her grammar." Etc. –  dannysauer Sep 2 '13 at 0:54
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@dannysauer No not true. There are euphemisms e.g. "gave her the time", or "told her the time", which are obscure now. The Urban Dictionary and "Family Guy" use all sorts of obscure expressions for sex. You can prove this to yourself with an ngram search. Screw and nail are very well known, long established synonyms for f*ck in the USA. –  Feral Oink Sep 2 '13 at 1:39
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Nice answer, Jack! I especially liked your additional reference to screwing up a piece of paper, the crumpling. The same is sometimes said to describe one's facial expression just before crying. Your first sentence is entirely accurate though. –  Feral Oink Sep 2 '13 at 1:41
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@dannysauer: That's certainly true to an extent. I hope we've all played "I'd verb her noun"? Which demonstrates your point nicely. However, there's a difference between words which could be used as euphemisms and words which are in regular usage as such. Both nailed and screwed are common slang terms for the act. –  Jack Aidley Sep 2 '13 at 12:55
    
I've found that, among at least those with whom I converse and the pop culture that I consume, people are more likely to think of "screwed" as synonymous with "fucked", either in the literal sexual or metaphorical sense. The use of nailed in the same context seems to be somewhat more obscure, falling very close to the "could be used" category. Absent context, I'd think that "nailed her" meant "caught her doing something", and would not immediately jump to the sexual context. With "screwed", the sexual context is my first thought. –  dannysauer Sep 2 '13 at 13:23

"Screwing" and "nailing" are slang for the same act: "f*cking," i.e. penetrating during intercourse. Notice there are different connotations to "f*cking." On one hand, "f*cking something up" could mean to ruin, damage, destroy it; e.g. the group project, or someone's face. On the other hand, "f*cking" something (or someone) could have the implication of holding dominance over it (or them).

So when someone says "I screwed it up", they're using the metaphor that they "f*cked it up" so that it's ruined. They might also mean that they twisted it (because screws twist) to a point that it's no longer functional. And "nailed it" means they defeated it, dominated it, held power over it, etc.

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A wild guess might be that the circular motion required to operate a screw, might render the expression "screwed" a sort of euphemism for more vulgar expression like "fucked up", and so on.

A nail, on the other hand, can keep stuff tighly on a wall or piece of wood and once completely nailed down, may be even hard to easily extract... :-)

(Just guessing)

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This is only answerable if given the context it is used in, as both terms are used for a multitude of different meanings depending on the context in which it is used.

For example, 'I got screwed.' can mean you were taken advantage of in one context, while in another context means you probably had a pretty good night with your partner. Both are spoken as a slang term, but it is the context of their use that makes the difference.

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protected by tchrist Jul 2 at 2:31

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