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‘Payer rubis sur l’ongle’: Our French expression of the week

As Black Friday is here, we look at a spending-related phrase harkening back to festivities of years gone by

We look at a money-related expression as Christmas shopping picks up pace Pic: pixinoo / Shutterstock

Christmas shopping will begin to pick up pace in France this week, as Christmas markets begin to open and Black Friday arrives. 

Read also: What’s coming up? The week ahead in France

This made us think of an expression relating to money and spending, which could apply to festive purchases. 

Payer rubis sur l’ongle’ (literally: to pay ruby on the nail) could be translated as ‘to pay cash on the nail’, that is, to pay immediately and in full. The phrase might therefore be used either when someone is able to pay cash in hand or straightaway, or if a business requires full payment immediately. 

But what has a ruby got to do with paying, and why does the money end up ‘on the nail’? 

This expression may find its origins in the seventeenth century, when at a celebration or party it was customary to ‘faire rubis sur l’ongle’ or drink the last drop of their wine off your fingernail to toast someone, according to La Langue française

Faire rubis sur l’ongle’ therefore came to signify ‘to finish something to the last drop’, which then became a metaphor for spending all of one’s money or paying until there was nothing left to pay.

In 1690, Académie française member Antoine Furetière introduced the adapted phrase ‘payer rubis sur l’ongle’ in his Dictionnaire universel

An examples of the expression in a sentence may be: ‘Je compte acheter ce canapé aujourd’hui ; je peux payer rubis sur l’ongle’ (I am planning on buying that sofa today; I can pay for it in cash). 

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