Cash On the Barrelhead

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Also: Cash on the Nail (British)

Meaning of Idiom 'Cash on the Barrelhead'

Cash on the barrelhead is an American idiom with the same meaning as the British expression cash on the nail (or nail head), meaning immediate payment up front before any goods or services are received. When you are expected to put cash on the barrelhead you are expected to pay without delay, with no credit allowed.


"How much to repair the sink," asked Beverly. "Two-hundred bucks, cash on the barrelhead," said the handyman.

"Maria was amazed when the man said he would buy the house for $300,000, cash on the barrelhead."


The word barrelhead, referring to the flat top of a barrel, has been used since at least the 1680s and the present idioms since at least the late 1800's.

According to lexicographer Charles Earl Funk, the idiom may have arisen in the days when barrels were used as tables in bars or saloons and patrons were expected to pay for their drinks immediately as they ordered them, literally placing cash on the heads of the barrels. 1

Another speculation is that it originates with money being paid up front for bulk goods that were transported in barrels. You can imagine a deal being struck for barrels of salt pork or even apples and money being laid on the barrelhead to seal the deal. As to the true origin, we can only speculate.

1. Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

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