The thumb-nail, curled up on itself in the womb, feels fear

The speaker is trying to convince his listeners that fear is more primal than any other emotions and feelings.

Why did he use thumb-nail as an example? I'm very confused.

Here is the context prior to the usage of "thumb-nail." It's taken from Clive Barker's short story, Dread

What?" said Cheryl.
"You mean things to do with bad experiences? Falling off your bike, or something like that?"
"Perhaps," Steve said.
"I find myself, sometimes, thinking of those pictures. Not deliberately, just when my concentration's idling. It's almost as though my mind went to them automatically." Quaid gave a little grunt of satisfaction. "Precisely," he said.
"Freud writes on that," said Cheryl.
"Freud," Cheryl repeated, this time making a performance of it, as though she were speaking to a child.
"Sigmund Freud: you may have heard of him." Quaid's lip curled with unrestrained contempt.
"Mother fixations don't answer the problem. The real terrors in me, in all of us, are pre-personality. Dread's there before we have any notion of ourselves as individuals. The thumb-nail, curled up on itself in the womb, feels fear."
"You remember do you?" said Cheryl.
"Maybe," Quaid replied, deadly serious

  • Just a theory, but a 'thumbnail' is often used for a small brief description or illustration of something, bringing it down to its essence or core meaning. In conjunction with 'womb' implying origination and pre-birth, this makes 'fear' something that we are born with and which in part defines us. – Lee Leon Apr 11 '18 at 18:44
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    Because of the use of thumbnail to refer to scaled down photos, searching is tricky. But I suggest that the author means to imply that a foetus the size of a thumbnail can feel fear – Chris H Apr 11 '18 at 19:23
  • That's a really weird usage. I'm tempted to conjecture that it should have been "thumb-sucker" or similar, but something went wrong in the editing process and "thumb-nail" got enshrined in print instead. – 1006a Apr 11 '18 at 19:37
  • I think that would make sense! @1006a – Rob F Apr 11 '18 at 19:41

I have not met the phrase in this sense before, but it clearly means "small object", and in context means "the embryo, even when very small".

The OED gives the meaning "A drawing or sketch of the size of the thumb-nail; hence fig. a brief word-picture. " from 1852. The extension to an object the size of a thumb-nail (rather than a drawing the size of the thumb-nail) is obvious.

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  • thanks, I agree with one of the comments by user 1006a; it had to be a typo for "thumb-sucker" – Rob F Apr 11 '18 at 19:43

I've emphasized the key elements in Steve's speech, before the cited passage and within it:

The signs of my dread, the images my brain uses, [...] to illustrate my fear,[...] I've got images, pictures from childhood that make me think of [...]

Cheryl's mentioning of Freud triggers this response from Quaid

Dread's there before we have any notion of ourselves as individuals. The thumb-nail, curled up on itself in the womb, feels fear.

Quaid compares "dread" to an embryo, nestling in its mother's womb, and because Steve sees images, pictures that illustrate his fear, the thumbnail represents the baby-sized photo (thumbnail) of fear that is imprinted in ourselves before we are even born.

2.1. [computing] A small picture of an image or page layout.

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  • ... nice answer – lbf Apr 11 '18 at 21:46
  • wow! Thank you. The sentence makes much more sense now. As a first time user of stack exchange, I have to say that I am very , VERY impressed by the help I have got here. And also, thank you for editing my post to make it look more organized. – Rob F Apr 12 '18 at 12:57
  • @RobF Oh, great to that I'm so pleased. Thanks for the message :) – Mari-Lou A Apr 12 '18 at 20:46

Unless the thumbnail is somehow sentient in this context, then such a statement is ludicrous.

Having so stated, for sake of argument, IF the thumbnail was sentient, then curling up on itself would seem to be a defensive posture to protect itself from whatever it 'feared'.

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  • thank you, i have added more context to my question – Rob F Apr 11 '18 at 19:08

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