Pay on the nail/pay cash on the nail
To pay on the nail or to pay cash on the nail means an immediate and full payment of money for goods or services. Despite the claims of the Bristol, Liverpool and Limerick tourism boards, the origin of this expression is probably not from the bronze pillars, or ‘nails’, as they were called, that grace the corn or stock exchanges of these British and Irish cities. These sturdy bronze pillars with flat circular tops, like the small round tables found in bars and pubs today, were fixed into the ground or paving and money did indeed exchange hands on these tables or ‘nails’ in the buying and selling of agricultural produce. The oldest of these bronze tables or nails is in Bristol from about the 1550s, whereas the first citation in English for ‘on the nail’ is in 1596. It is highly unlikely that the expression ‘on the nail’ was coined on these bronze ‘nails’ or tables if it was only first cited in print some fifty years later. There is strong evidence to suggest that ‘on the nail’ meaning an immediate cash payment is a very much older concept, certainly dating as far back as the 14th century and possibly before. In 14th century Anglo-Norman French, payer sur le ungle - ungle meaning finger nail, meant to pay immediately and in full. The allusion here is to count out money with the fingers or fingertips. This 14th century reference to the finger nail as the origin of the expression casts serious doubts on the claims of the Bristol, Liverpool and Limerick tourism boards.