The Grammarphobia Blog

A hit and a lick

Q: I’m trying to find the origin of “a hit and a lick,” a saying I learned while living in East Texas. I found an article about “a lick and a promise” on your site. I suspect the meaning is similar, but I’d like to have your input.

A: We haven’t been able to find “a hit and a lick” in any of our slang or idiom references, and it doesn’t seem to be used much.

In searches of news and book databases, we’ve found only a couple of dozen examples of the usage, with the earliest dating back to the late 19th century.

We suspect that the usage may be a conflation of two similar expressions: the adjectival phrase  “hit-or-miss” (meaning sometimes successful and sometimes not) and the noun phrase “a lick and a promise” (a superficial effort).

Or it may be a variation on the verbal expression “hit a lick,” which Green’s Dictionary of Slang says can mean, among other things, “to make an effort; usu. in negative combs. implying laziness on behalf of the subj. of the phr. e.g. He hasn’t hit a lick all week.”

Whatever its origin, the expression “a hit and a lick” seems to be used, as you suspect, in the same sense as “a lick and a promise.”

The earliest example of the usage we could find is from the Feb. 27, 1891, issue of the biking journal Wheel and Cycling Trade Review:

“X Bones will plead that, like other members of the club, he has not seen enough of the gentleman recently to be able to tell as much about him as he would like, and so, in the homely old phrase, he will give this sketch ‘a hit and a lick’ and let it go.”

And here’s an example from a 1920 issue of the Institution Quarterly, the journal of the Illinois Department of Public Welfare:

“A hit and a lick here and there have been all it has ever received. Much improvement could be made in its typographical appearance and in the character and preparation of its contents.”

We’ll end with a comment on the Ticketmaster website about a B. B. King concert at the Horseshoe Southern Indiana Hotel on Nov. 16, 2013:

“His band started out the first 15 minutes with instrumentals. He was on stage himself 75 minutes, and only sang parts of two (2) songs with a hit and a lick on both. Most of the time he spent conversing with people on the first row and asking band members if they remembered things and asking his number one back up rhythm guitar player to take over and play some instrumentals.”

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