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Cash on the nail

Q From Ian Swan: You mentioned in the newsletter last week that the author of The Dictionary of Bullshit got the origin of cash on the nail wrong. Curious as to the correct origin, I searched your Web site, but could not find it. Could you please provide the correct origin in your next newsletter?

A I’ll do my best, Mr Swan, but the evidence is a little obscure, so bear with me while I trace the most direct route through the linguistic thickets.

One of the four nails outside the Bristol Corn Exchange.
A Bristol Nail
(photo courtesy of Larina Gray)

Nick Webb gave the story usually told about the origin of cash on the nail. It’s linked to four famous “nails”, bronze pillars with flat tops, like small circular tables, that are set in the pavement (sidewalk) outside the Corn Exchange in Bristol. (He actually said that the pillars are iron and located inside a building called the Royal Exchange, but never mind.) The story says that merchants paid their debts by putting their money on a nail. So pay on the nail or cash on the nail came to mean settling a debt promptly.

The story is retold in almost every popular book on word history I have on my shelves, as well as in Bristol’s tourist literature and on its Web sites. Nevertheless, it is untrue.

The Limerick nailThe nail in Limerick Museum (photo courtesy of the Museum)

Some history first. The nails were erected in Bristol from about 1550 to 1631. They were originally elsewhere but were moved to their present site after the Corn Exchange was built in the 1740s. Although the story seems to have been captured by Bristol, nails have also been recorded in the Stock Exchanges in Liverpool and Limerick. The latter dates from 1685 and was described by the blind Irish playwright John O’Keeffe in his Recollections of 1826: “In the centre of Limerick Exchange is a pillar with a circular plate of copper about three feet in diameter, called The Nail, on which the earnest of all stock-exchange bargains has to be paid.” At one time, merchants did transact their business on them as a public way of demonstrating that they were making a deal. The Tome Stone in Barnstaple once served a similar purpose.

All this might seem to confirm the truth of the story. However, the popular link of the various nails with the expression seems to have begun only with an entry by Dr E Cobham Brewer in the first edition of his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, in 1870.

The expression on the nail, on the spot, at once, without delay, is first recorded in print in 1596. This predates most of the known nails. This isn’t definitive, because they might have replaced others of earlier date. But the reference by John O’Keeffe is the first record of the name, a surprisingly late one if they were known by that name before 1596.

Similar expressions have been recorded in other languages from even earlier, including German and Dutch. In particular the Anglo-Norman payer sur le ungle, to pay immediately and in full, is known from about 1320. Ungle is from Latin unguis, a finger or toe nail; it’s a relative of ungula, a hoof or claw, from which we get ungulate for a hoofed animal (the modern French word is ongle). Modern Italian has two related expressions, pagare sull’unghia or contanti sull’unghia, which literally mean to make payment on the tips of one’s fingers.

The phrase ad ungulum, “on the nail” — to a nicety, to perfection or to the utmost — is in the Satires of the Roman poet Horace 2000 years ago and is based on an even older Greek expression. This may be from the idea of a sculptor having created a carving so perfect that running a fingernail over it couldn’t detect any unevenness, or from a joiner testing the accuracy of a joint. This is likely to have been the inspiration for the Anglo-Norman phrase, albeit with a shift in sense from “to the utmost” to “completely; in full”.

So the evidence suggests strongly that on the nail is the English version of an old phrase that came into the language via Latin and Anglo-Norman, one that actually refers to a different sort of nail. The presumption must be that the nails in the exchanges borrowed their names from the expression, and not the other way round.

Incidentally, the US equivalent is cash on the barrelhead or cash on the barrel. Unlike cash on the nail, this may have had a literal connection, either to the barrels used as informal counters in old-time general stores or to merchants refusing to hand over a barrel containing goods until it had been paid for. But it appears to be surprisingly modern: the earliest example I can find is dated 1906.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 24 Dec. 2005

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 24 December 2005.