“To fight tooth and nail means to fight with all the tools at one’s disposal, to fight with all of one’s might. The idiom fight tooth and nail seems to have been in use long before it first appeared in print in 1562. In the work Certain Tractates, Ninian Winget writes “Contending with tuith and nail (as is the prouverb).” Since Winget refers to “tuith and nail” as a proverb, we may surmise that it was a well-known saying before 1562. It seems that the idiom to fight tooth and nail has an even older origin, as a popular ancient Latin phrase toto corpore atque omnibus ungulis, which means with all the body and with every nail.
It is used by Charles Dickens in his 1850 novel David Copperfield. Uriah Heep is one of the main antagonists of the novel. His character is notable for his cloying humility, unctuousness, obsequiousness, and insincerity, making frequent references to his own “‘umbleness”. His name has become synonymous with sycophancy.
…I’ve got a motive, as my fellow-partner used to say; and I go at it tooth and nail. I mustn’t be put upon, as a numble person, too much. I can’t allow people in my way. Really they must come out of the cart, Master Copperfield!’
‘I don’t understand you,’ said I.
‘Don’t you, though?’ he returned, with one of his jerks. ‘I’m astonished at that, Master Copperfield, you being usually so quick! I’ll try to be plainer, another time…
” “In Memoriam A.H.H.” is a poem by the British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, published in 1850. It is a requiem for the poet’s beloved Cambridge friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly of a cerebral haemorrhage in Vienna in 1833, aged 22.
…in Canto 56 Tennyson asks whether Man (Who trusted God was love indeed/ And love Creation’s final law—/ Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw/ With ravine, shriek’d against his creed) would also “Be blown about the desert dust, Or seal’d within the iron hills?”
Although this phrase “tooth and claw” is commonly ascribed to Tennyson, it was already in use. For example, The Hagerstown Mail in March 1837: “Hereupon, the beasts, enraged at the humbug, fell upon him tooth and claw.”
In writing the poem, Tennyson was influenced by the evolutionary ideas of transmutation of species presented in Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation which had been published in 1844, and had caused a storm of controversy about the theological implications of impersonal nature functioning without direct divine intervention. An Evangelical focus on unquestioning belief in revealed truth taken from a literal interpretation of the Bible was already coming into conflict with emerging findings of science. Tennyson expressed the difficulties evolutionary ideas raised for faith in “the truths that never can be proved”, while still believing the older idea that reason would eventually harmonise science and religion, as there could be no real contradiction.
This poem was published a decade before Charles Darwin made his theory public. However, the phrase “Nature, red in tooth and claw” in canto 56 quickly was adopted by others as a phrase that evokes the process of natural selection. It was and is used by both those opposed to and in favour of the theory of evolution…”