The Grammarphobia Blog

Why is a top 10 song a hit?

Q: What is the origin of “hit” as a positive term, as in “hit song”?

A: When we say a movie or an album is a “hit,” we aren’t implying that it got there by physical violence, even when the movie or album has a lot of rough stuff in it.

So why do we use such a pugilistic word to refer to a popular success? There’s a good reason, as it turns out.

The noun “hit” began life pretty violently—as a blow, a stroke, a collision, or an impact. But that kind of “hit” eventually gave us a successful stroke in any kind of endeavor, especially in the entertainment field.

Here’s how the word evolved.

The noun “hit” is derived from the earlier verb “hit,” which was nonviolent when it showed in English nearly a thousand years ago, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The verb is believed to have come into English from Old Norse, where hitta meant “to come upon, light upon, meet with, get at, attain to, reach one’s aim, succeed, and the like.”

This sense of getting at or attaining something is what the verb “hit” originally meant when it was first recorded in English sometime before 1075.

It wasn’t until two centuries later, around 1275, that “hit” got its more violent meaning—“to get at or reach with a blow, to strike,” the OED says.

Both senses of the verb are still with us today.

The original Old Norse meaning survives in phrases like “hit the road,” “hit the trail,” “hit my meaning,” “hit a happy medium,” “hit upon an idea (or fact),” “hit it off,” “hit the mark,” “hit the truth,” “hit the sack” (to get to bed), and so on.

All these senses of the verb are nonviolent. They don’t mean crashing or colliding into something, but rather reaching or attaining or getting at it.

The newer and more violent sense of the verb “hit” is the one that’s more familiar today, and it’s the one that gave us all senses of the noun “hit”—including the one you ask about.

The noun “hit” came along in the mid-15th century, and boy was it violent in the beginning!

The OED’s earliest citation is from Ludus Coventriae (circa 1450), an anonymous English miracle play:

“To hym wyl I go, and geve hym suche an hete / That alle the lechis of the londe his lyf xul nevyr restore.” (“To him will I go, and give him such a hit that all the leeches of the land his life shall never restore.”)

Yikes! It’s hard to tell what would be worse—the hit or the leeches.

Many uses of the noun are violent, of course—some more than others. For instance, a “hit” came to mean a killing, perhaps for hire, in the mid-20th century.

And this sense of the noun has been used attributively—that is, as an adjective—in phrases like “hit man” and “hit squad.”

But “hit” has more peaceful meanings as well. For instance, a “hit” can be a stroke of good luck or a stroke of a ball on the playing field.

We’re not sure, though, how to list a “hit” of drugs: violent or nonviolent?

More pertinent to your question is a usage that the OED dates to the early 19th century: “a successful stroke made in action or performance of any kind; esp. any popular success (a person, a play, a song, etc.) in public entertainment.”

This sense of the noun has also been used attributively in phrases such as “hit parade” and “hit song,” the OED adds.

The earliest recorded use of this sense of “hit” is from a letter written in 1811 by the comedian Charles Mathews:

“Maw-worm was a most unusual hit, I am told.” (Mathews played the role of Mr. Mawworm in The Hypocrite, by the Irish playwright Isaac Bickerstaff, on the London stage in 1809.)

And since we like quoting from mysteries, here’s a citation from Fredric Brown’s Murder Can Be Fun (1951): “She had big blue eyes that would have been a hit on television.”

We’ll end with the use of the noun “hit” in computing to mean a match in a processing task or a connection with a website.

The OED’s first citation for this usage, from Charles J. Sippl’s Computer Dictionary and Handbook (1967), defines the term “hit” in digital file maintenance as “the finding of a match between a detail record and a master record.”

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