Old English negel "tapering metal pin," nægl "fingernail (handnægl), toenail," from Proto-Germanic *naglaz (source also of Old Norse nagl "fingernail," nagli "metal nail;" Old Saxon and Old High German nagel, Old Frisian neil, Middle Dutch naghel, Dutch nagel, German Nagel "fingernail; small metal spike"), from PIE root *(o)nogh "nail of the finger or toe" (source also of Greek onyx "claw, fingernail;" Latin unguis "fingernail, claw;" Old Church Slavonic noga "foot," noguti "fingernail, claw;" Lithuanian naga "hoof," nagutis "fingernail;" Old Irish ingen, Old Welsh eguin "fingernail, claw").
The "fingernail" sense seems to be the original one, but many figurative uses are from the "small metal spike" sense: hard as nails is from 1828. To hit the nail on the head "say or do just the right thing" is by 1520s; in Middle English driven in the nail (c. 1400) was "to drive home one's point, clinch an argument," and smiten the nail on the hed was "tell the exact truth" (mid-15c.). Phrase on the nail "on the spot, exactly" is from 1590s, of obscure origin; OED says it is not certain it belongs to this sense of nail.
As a unit of English cloth measure (about 2 1/4 inches) from late 14c.; perhaps from a nail being used to mark that length on the end of a yardstick.
Old English næglian "to fix or fasten (something) onto (something else) with nails," from Proto-Germanic *ganaglijan (source also of Old Saxon neglian, Old Norse negla, Old High German negilen, German nageln, Gothic ganagljan "to nail"), from the root of nail (n.). Related: Nailed; nailing. The colloquial meaning "secure, succeed in catching or getting hold of (someone or something)" is by 1760; hence "to arrest" (by 1930). Meaning "to succeed in hitting" is from 1886. To nail down "to fix down with nails" is from 1660s.
"worrisome or suspenseful experience," by 1999, perhaps originally in reference to close games in sports, from the notion of biting one's fingernails as a sign of anxiety (attested from 1570s); see nail (n.) + bite (v.). Nail-biting (n.) is from 1805; nail-biter as "person who habitually or compulsively bites his fingernails" is by 1856.