Hit the Nail on the Head (Origin)

What Is the Origin of the Saying "Hit the Nail on the Head"?

The term "hit the nail on the head" means to do something accurately or to say something accurate. It should not be confused with the saying "knock it on the head," which means to end something.
Hit the Nail on the Head (Origin)

Examples of Use:

  • Your speech summarized the problem brilliantly. You really hit the nail on the head there.
  • I think I hit the nail on the head when I said she was losing interest in the project.
  • There are horrible people who, instead of solving a problem, tangle it up and make it harder to solve for anyone who wants to deal with it. Whoever does not know how to hit the nail on the head should be asked not to hit it at all. (Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche)
This idiom is over 600 years old. It appears in Margery Kempe's autobiography "The Book of Margery Kempe," which was written 1438. (NB: Margery Kempe was an English Christian mystic. Her autobiography, which was written through dictation, is often described as the first autobiography in the English language.)
  • "Yyf I here any mor thes materys rehersyd, I xal so smytyn ye nayl on ye hed that it schal schamyn alle hyr mayntenowrys."
  • (It translates as "If I hear any more of these matters repeated, I shall so smite the nail on the head that it shall shame all her supporters.")
It is unclear whether Kempe used the term in its current meaning. Nevertheless, by the 16th century, the term was clearly being widely used, almost certainly to describe accuracy, as evidenced by William Cuningham's use of the term in his 1559 book of woodcut prints "The Cosmographical Glass":
  • "You hit the naile on the head (as the saying is)"

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.