type of quartz characterized by a structure in parallel bands differing in color or degree of translucency, used for cameos, etc., mid-13c., oneche; c. 1300, onix, from Old French oniche "onyx" (12c.), and directly from Latin onyx (genitive onychis), from Greek onyx "onyx-stone," originally "claw, talon, hoof, fingernail" (see nail (n.)). So called because the mineral's color sometimes resembles that of a human fingernail, pink with white streaks.
In 19c. also used of other raised, carved work on a miniature scale. Transferred sense of "small character or part that stands out from other minor parts" in a play, etc., is from 1928, from earlier meaning "short literary sketch or portrait" (1851), a transferred sense from cameo silhouettes. A cameotype (1864) was a small, vignette daguerreotype mounted in a jeweled setting.
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.