When someone says that you’ve “hit the nail on the head”, it means that whatever you did or said was precisely right. It feels good to hear that we have done something right; having our ego stroked always feels good; but where did this expression come from?
Oddly enough to “hit the nail on the head” has nothing to do with actual carpenters, hammers or nails. The original origins of this saying are not precisely known, but it is believed to have stemmed from the earliest translated English biography in recorded history to have survived: The Book of Margery Kempe, circa 1438.
The original text, although unreadable by most, looks like this:
“Yyf I here any mor thes materys rehersyd, I xal so smytyn ye nayl on ye hed that it schal schamyn alle hyr mayntenowrys.”
In modern English it reads as this:
“If I hear any more these matters repeated, I shall so smite the nail on the head that it shall shame all her supporters.”
The meaning isn’t exactly clear, but some have interpreted this to mean to ‘hit the nail on the head’ as ‘speak severely’. I liken it to a parent telling their kids that if they don’t stop asking/mentioning something, they would be receiving a severe tongue lashing. Any parent out there can relate to that!
Later use of this phrase comes from in the 1559 The Cosmographical Glass: You hit the naile on the head, which is closer in meaning to its current day usage as having said or performed an action exactly correct to some predetermined standard.