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The paint that is commonly used to color the fingernail is called (in the United States) "nail polish", when it is clearly a paint. Obviously it was at one time customary to polish nails instead of paint them, but is there any other reason for using "polish" to describe a substance better described as "paint"?

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

It's a holdover term from the early days when nails were indeed polished, instead of painted (or laquered) as they are today.

Here's a good chronology.

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Possibly due to their origin. According to the Chemical & Engineering News, August 11, 2008, p.43 (which is taken by me from Wikipedia), the portraits shown of Incas decorating their nails with pictures of eagles include shiny nails. "Nail polish" could have been termed due to this shiny appearance.

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