Somewhere, in an email or on Facebook or on a news blog, I saw this:
But she hammered the head on the nail with this quote.
How odd, I thought. Shouldn’t it be, “she hammered the nail on the head”?
A Google search brings up 683,000 results for “hit the head on the nail” compared to 1,580,000 for “hit the nail on the head.” The phrase “the head on the nail” registers on the Ngram Viewer, but barely, compared to “the nail on the head.”
The earliest citation of the expression in the OED is dated 1438.
It’s not so easy to hit a nail squarely on the head. For that reason, “to hit the nail on the head” is a term of approbation. Figuratively, people who hit the nail on the head succeed in accomplishing what they are aiming for.
Most of the examples I’ve found of the reversed idiom have been in readers’ comments, but I have found a few in presumably professional writing. For example, this one, with inexplicable hyphenation, is from a technical review:
You have to remember though that Apple may or may not be upgrading the iPad again before the end of the year (this comes from John Gruber a known Apple pundit that tends to hit-the-head-on-the-nail when it comes to Apple rumors).
A site dedicated to test preparation has this topic header:
SAT Improvement or Hit the head on the nail
This one is from a sports blog:
These commercials are cool…but rarely do they hit the head on the nail of a player like Nike has done with these Calvin Johnson, P. Diddy advertisements.
I found one example in which the reversal seems intended to be humorous:
I could try for a long time to hit the head on the nail (as one of my writing students once said)—Writing advice site
A review of the film Fifty Shades of Grey includes the following bit of dialogue:
Christian – Have you been drinking?
Ana – Yup, you hit the head on the nail.
It could be that this reversal is the result of Ana’s alcohol-impaired thinking.
Changing “hit the nail on the head” to “hit the head on the nail” is jarring, to say the least. Writers who wish to be taken seriously will avoid doing it.