"Paying on the nail"
The photos below show the inside of the Guildhall Market on the High Street in Bath. The market is said to have been in operation for around 800 years, and over that period the products for sale will have changed from fresh produce and livestock, to today’s tacky gifts and DIY supplies. The market has been operating from its current venue from at least the 16th century, and one of the monuments to the age of the market is its stone pillar, which is known as a “Nail”. According to popular belief the Nail is the place where all transactions at the market used to take place, with debts being settled by people putting their money on a Nail. This practice apparently lead to the phrase “paying on the nail”, which nowadays means to pay a debt promptly. Nails made of bronze can also be found in nearby Bristol. The Bristol Nails are set in the pavement outside of the Corn Exchange and are again said to be where merchants in Bristol paid their debts.
The association of the these pillars with the origin of the phrase “paying on the nail” is however challenged by some. Some sources suggest that the origin of the phrase predates the use of these pillars as point of payment and that the phrase possibly derives from ancient Greece. It seems that there is written evidence (circa 1300) for an Anglo-Norman version of the phrase and also a Roman version of the phrase (circa 1 AD). It is thought that these may have in turn been based on an older Greek phrase. The Greek phrase is said to relate to a person running their finger nail over a newly carved sculpture or a carpenter’s joint to feel for imperfections and test the quality of the work, before making payment. So perhaps the Nails were named as a result of a phrase that was already in common use at the time of their construction, as opposed to be them being the origin of the phrase “paying on the nail”?
|The Bath Guildhall Market "Nail".|
|The Roman Baths, known as "The Kings Bath" in the medieval era.|
|The middle image in the above shows "the kitchen" at the centre of "The Kings Bath".|
The last phrase I will mention is “Daylight Robbery”. Possible evidence for the origin of this phrase can be seen in the architecture of the city of Bath.
In 1696, King William III of England introduced a tax which charged people based on the number of windows in their property. The idea of income tax was distasteful to the population on the basis that it was an unwelcome intrusion into a person’s private affairs, so instead a person’s perceived income was taxed by taxing the size of their property, based on the number of windows. The tax had two tiers, a flat rate was charged for all houses with up to 10 windows and then an extra variable element was added on properties with extra windows above the initial ten.
In order to dodge the tax, some house owners took to the practice of bricking up any excess windows. These bricked-up windows would have prevented some areas of the properties from receiving the daylight that they once had. As such, some people saw this tax as them being robbed of their daylight and fresh air! Hence it is said that the phrase “Daylight Robbery” came into being.
The Window Tax was repealed around 1851, and as can be seen in the below pictures, some of the older houses in Bath still show signs of having bricked up windows. Some older houses even have fake windows installed to mask these bricked up windows and restore the property’s natural symmetry.
As with all of these phrases, the origin of the phrase is disputed, with some sources highlighting that the phrase was not first seen in print until the late 1940’s, and if this is true can it really have an origin dating back to 1696?
|Blocked off windows - an attempt to dodge the window tax?|
|Can you tell which windows on this building are real and which are fake?|
So that is end of my tour around Bath. It is hard to be sure of the exact origin of these phrases, but clearly there is no need to let that get in the way of a good story! And who knows, perhaps even one of them may be true!
Pictures: Somerset (August 2016).
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