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The meaning and origin of the expression: Cash on the nail

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Cash on the nail

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Meaning

Payment made immediately.

Origin

'Cash on the nail' (or 'pay on the nail') are extensions of the earlier phrase - 'on the nail', meaning immediate payment; without delay. This expression is first recorded in English in Thomas Nashe's Haue with you to Saffron-Walden, 1596:

"Tell me, haue you a minde to anie thing in the Doctors Booke! speake the word, and I will help you to it vpon the naile."

Philip Massinger's comic play The City-Madame, 1632, in which a character welcomes the arrival of a ship that has given his master considerable profit, makes the association with timeliness clear:

And it comes timely; For, besides a payment on the nail for a manor late purchased by my master, his young daughters are ripe for marriage.

The first example that I can find of the longer 'cash on the nail' version is in an anonymous open letter from to the Mayor of Exeter, printed on a sixpenny broadsheet in 1753:

The Commanders and Officers of those vessels knew very well that Wool and Worsted were Commodities of a real and intrinsic Value: Articles that would sell at any Time or Place for ready Cash on the Nail.

cash on the nailI've managed to get this far without mentioning the story that 'cash on the nail' relates to the bronze pillars, called nails. These are to be seen outside the Corn Exchange in Bristol and the Stock Exchanges in Limerick and Liverpool. This derivation is printed in virtually every etymological reference book. Whisper it not in Bristol, Limerick or Liverpool but this story has to be treated with some caution.

It is said that the oldest of the four pillars in Bristol is mid-16th century and so would just pre-date the earliest printed reference to 'on the nail'. It is also true that business deals were sealed on these pillars. The late dates of the appearance of either or the terms cash on the nail and pay on the nail, make the attribution doubtful. None of the early printed references make any reference to any of the cities with nails. The first time the suggested link between the bronze nails and the phrase was made was in 1870, by Dr Cobham Brewer in the first edition of the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. That suggestion was made over a century after the phrase was already in common use. There's not quite enough evidence to say that Brewer made the story up, but it does seem to be a strong possibility.

It is more likely that the nails were named to match the expression rather than the other way around and that the origin of the expression lies in France rather than the west coats of either England or Ireland.

Versions of the were used in several European languages:

14th century Anglo-Norman, as payer sur le ungle - to pay immediately.
17th century French, as sur l'ongle - exactly.
Dutch, as op den nagel - on the nail
German, as auf den Nagel - entirely, to the last detail.

The Anglo-Norman 'payer sur le ungle' means just the same as the English 'pay on the nail'. 'Ungle' derives from the Latin 'ungula', which means claw or nail. The sense of the earliest version of the phrase is clearly 'payment with the hand' - nothing to do with bronze obelisks.

By around 1900 the US also began to use 'cash on the barrel' and 'cash on the barrelhead', with the same meaning as 'cash on the nail'. That has a much stronger claim to have a literal derivation, as barrels were used as impromptu counters in US stores and yard sales.