[1300–50; Middle English, variant of paiement < Middle French. See pay 1. -ment ]
cash on the barrelhead Immediate payment; money on the spot. This Americanism probably gained currency during the days when perishable items were kept in barrels to retain freshness. To purchase something, one had to put “cash on the barrelhead.” Today the phrase is used to indicate that no credit is extended.
No more divorces in Holt County until there is cash on the “barrelhead,” is the edict. (Kansas City Times. April 7, 1932)
foot the bill To pay or settle an account; to assume responsibility for expenses incurred by others. This expression stems from the custom of signing one’s name at the bottom, or foot of a bill as a promise of payment. Over the years, this phrase has come to describe someone who pays an entire bill himself, rather than allow or force it to be divided among the parties involved.
The annual bill we foot is, after all, small compared with that of France. (Leeds Mercury. July 18, 1891)
the ghost walks Salaries will be paid; there is money in the treasury; it’s payday. This expression, inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet. has two possible explanations, one of which cites Horatio’s asking the ghost (of Hamlet’s father) if it walks because:
Thou hast uphoarded in thy life Extorted treasure in the womb of earth. (I, i)
A more plausible, and certainly more colorful, theory tells of a 19th-century British theater company that threatened to strike because their salaries had not been paid for several weeks. The ghost was played by the leader of the company, a highly acclaimed actor. During a performance, the ghost, in answer to Hamlet’s exclamation, “Perchance ‘twill walk again,” shouted from the wings, “No, I’m damned if the ghost walks any more until our salaries are paid!” Their salaries were paid and the performance continued. From then on, the actors met every payday to determine whether the ghost would walk, i.e. whether they would be paid. This expression gave rise to ghost. theatrical slang for a paymaster or treasurer of a theater or theater company.
go on tick To buy an item on credit; to be indebted for what one purchases; also, get on tick. In this expression, tick is a shortening of ticket. where ticket
carries its obsolete meaning of a written note acknowledging debt. Although the phrase never attained great popularity in the United States, it has been a commonplace expression in Great Britain for centuries.
A poor wretch that goes on tick for the paper he writes his lampoons on. (William Wycherley, Love in a Wood. 1672)
the never-never plan Installment buying, buying on credit; the layaway plan. This British colloquialism for their own hire-purchase is usually abbreviated to the slang never-never. It appeared in print as early as the 1920s, and continues in common usage.
They’ve still not paid off their mortgage, you know, and I wouldn’t mind betting that Rover of theirs is on the never-never. (J. Wilson, Truth or Dare. 1973)
nickel and dime to death To drain a person of his money bit by bit; to eat away at one’s monetary resources a little at a time; to exhaust one’s finances by an accumulation of small expenses. This U. S. colloquial expression has become common in recent years, probably because of continued inflation and “built-in obsolescence.” It might appear in a context such as: “It’s not the initial outlay or major maintenance that makes automobile ownership expensive, but they nickel and dime you to death with piddling repairs due to their own shoddy workmanship.”
on the cuff On credit; on a special payment plan; on tick. Although the origin of this expression is obscure, a plausible derivation is that, at one time, storekeepers and bartenders kept track of debts by making marks on their shirt cuffs, which, till the 1920s, were available in Celluloid and, like collars, were not sewn to the shirt. Written on in pencil, they could easily be wiped clean. The phrase is used frequently today.
Money was not important at all. All business was transacted on the cuff. (B. Macdonald, Egg and I 1945)
on the nail On the spot, at once, immediately, right away or now; used in reference to money payments. Although the origin of this expression is obscure, it may be related to the French phrase sur l’ongle ‘exactly, precisely’ (literally, ‘on the nail’). The expression appeared in Maria Edgeworth’s Popular Tales in 1804:
The bonnet’s all I want, which I’ll pay for on the nail.
No longer in common use, this phrase dates from the late 16th century.