When it comes to words, Mr Q hits the nail on the head

Michael Quinion does more than most to keep up the good work of Fowler, Partridge and the other linguistic ghosts who haunt this column.

Michael Quinion does more than most to keep up the good work of Fowler, Partridge and the other linguistic ghosts who haunt this column. As the author of Port Out, Starboard Home: And Other Language Myths, he is particularly effective when grappling with tall tales about the origins of words and phrases and reducing them to size. Almost a year ago, I summarised the arguments that gave him the title for his book. "Port outward, starboard home" was not, as commonly supposed, a phrase stamped on the tickets of well-to-do sea voyagers, thus creating the acronym-turned-adjective "posh".

A dip into Mr Quinion's website, World Wide Words (www.worldwidewords.org) yields a wealth of further material on subjects including topical words, weird words and turns of phrase. Quite how he came to devote his time to questions of language - the site says he "writes on international English from a British viewpoint" - is not fully explained. It was a career path that began incongruously with a physical sciences degree and counted among its staging posts time on local radio, work as a museum curator and running a business creating audio-visual programmes and visitor attractions.

But in the world of words, he found his natural habitat. A dictionary of affixes, Ologies and Isms, was followed by Port Outward, Starboard Home, adapted for an American audience as Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds. Mr Quinion's most recent book, Why Is Q Always Followed By U?, reproduced 200 questions and answers from his site. I was reassured to find he knew perfectly well that the U does not follow the Q in words transliterated from Arabic. "It's a neat way of transcribing that guttural k sound [the Arabic letter qaf] that's faithful to the way the alphabet has evolved over more than two millennia," he says.

But it is in challenging long-held theories about the provenance of English terminology that Mr Quinion excels. A simple Google search had taken me to his pronouncement on "posh", and another led to his views on the history of the phrase "cash on the nail", or "to pay on the nail". The story is often repeated that the term is linked to slavery because it derives from the practice of sealing business deals, including the odious trade in human beings, on the "nails", four bronze pillars on the pavement - the internationalist in Mr Quinion prompting him to follow pavement by sidewalk in parenthesis - outside the Corn Exchange in the English city of Bristol. I remember hearing the story during the seven years I spent there.

"The story says that merchants paid their debts by putting their money on a nail," writes Mr Quinion. "So pay on the nail or cash on the nail came to mean settling a debt promptly." He adds that this explanation appears in almost every popular book on word history on his shelves, in Bristol's tourism literature and on the city's websites. "Nevertheless," comes the crunch, "it is untrue." Exploring other languages, Mr Quinion was able to find an Anglo-Norman version from the 14th century and later equivalents in French, Dutch and German. The first references to a supposed link with the pillars or "nails", in Bristol (and also Limerick and Liverpool), were relatively recent (1870) and made in the United States.

"So the evidence suggests strongly that on the nail is the English version of an old phrase that came into the language via Latin and Anglo-Norman, one that actually refers to a different sort of nail," states the author, pointing out that the older terms concerned fingernails. "The presumption must be that the nails in the exchanges borrowed their names from the expression, and not the other way round."

Long may Mr Quinion go on nailing semantic lies. To nail a lie means to disprove a false assertion and is traced by Webster's and other sources to the old practice of shopkeepers to nail counterfeit coins to the counter. But perhaps Mr Quinion knows better. Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and can be contacted at crandall@thenational.ae