In 1592, the London writer Thomas Nashe published Pierce Penilesse His Supplication to the Divell, a brash and witty survey of London types, written as though from a penniless scribbler who tries in desperation to seek patronage from Lucifer.
In passing he mentions a drinking game that had newly “come out of France”. When a man had finished a drink, he had to turn his cup upside down and put its lip on his thumb nail. If there was more liquid left in the cup than would form a pearl on the nail, he would have to drink again as a penance. This seems to have gone down a treat in the taverns of Southwark.
Nashe called the game, drinking super nagulum, which pretty soon turned into supernaculum. It’s a bilingual pun of a type that delighted the wits in that circle of pamphleteers and playwrights that included Nashe and Shakespeare. The first bit is the Latin prefix super-, above. The remainder comes from German Nagel, a nail. The word and the game mirror a German one that was usually referred to in the phrase auf den Nagel trinken, to drink on the nail, to finish off liquor to the last drop.
Drinkers became rather casual about the custom and just inverted their cups or mugs to prove that they’d drunk to the last drop. Supernaculum could mean this, or the last remaining drop of a drink, or a cry to indicate that one had done it.
His lordship performed his task with ease; but as he withdrew the horn from his mouth, all present, except Vivian, gave a loud cry of “Supernaculum!” The Baron smiled with great contempt as he tossed, with a careless hand, the great horn upside downwards, and was unable to shed upon his nail even the one excusable pearl.
Vivian Grey, by Benjamin Disraeli, 1826.
The meaning that has survived longest, though it’s now rare, extended the idea to refer to a beverage of the highest quality that cried out to be consumed to the very last drop. Hence, anything really excellent.
The same idea was expressed from the late eighteenth century by heel-tap, originally a shoemaker’s term for a part of the heel of a shoe. The liquor that remained in the bottom of a glass somehow took on the same name. So when a toast was offered with the instruction “and no heel-taps” to those present it meant that glasses should be drained to the very dregs.
Then huzza! to the health of Victoria, our Queen,
The pride and hope of the nation;
Fill to the brim — let no “heel-taps” be seen
On the day of our Queen’s coronation.
Liverpool Mercury, 22 June 1838. Victoria’s coronation was the following week, on 28 June 1838.