Hitting the target
The many uses of the word ‘hit’.
WHEN my neighbour’s son, Woon, has some free time, he likes to come over to my house to watch the MTV channel on TV. His mother does not subscribe to Astro. She thinks that if she does so, her children will be less focused on their studies.
Woon loves to watch MTV Hits, a programme which features the latest songs favoured by teens the world over.
As a 13-year-old boy who attended a Chinese vernacular school until Year Six, Woon finds English challenging. He likes learning from me the new uses for English words. Recently, he asked me: “When someone says a particular song is a ‘hit’, do they mean the song is very popular?” “Yes,” I told him. “Then, what does it mean when my teacher keeps telling us to ‘ hit the books’? I find that term confusing. Isn’t ‘hit’ a word we use to describe an action of using force to beat or strike something? I understand what my mother means when she says ‘don’t hit your sister’ or when my brother says ‘ hit the ball’ with my ping pong bat but why does my Science teacher ask me to hit my books? It feels weird.”
I explained to him: “‘To hit the books’ simply means ‘to study hard’.”
“Oh, I get that now. But what about when she says, “You must hit the nail on the head?” I asked Woon: “When did she say that?” “She was giving us tips on how to answer some structured questions. She told us that we won’t get any marks if we do not hit the nail on the head. Does she mean we will lose marks if we state the wrong answer?”
“Yes,” I explained. “That’s what she meant. To hit the nail on the head is to be very accurate and state the truth. For the structured questions she’s talking about, you must give the exact answer. Imagine if you have a real nail and a hammer, and you don’t hit the nail right on the head, the nail won’t go in, right? In the same way, if you don’t hit the nail on the head with the answer you choose to give, this means your answer is wrong and you won’t get any marks for it.”
Woon was quick to remember some other expressions his Science teacher had used. “She also scolded us recently when we were fooling about in the laboratory. She said: ‘I don’t want you to carry out any hit-and-miss experiments. Record all your observations accurately.”
I challenged Woon: “Why don’t you try to guess what she meant by that?”
“I guess she wanted us to be careful and do our experiments seriously. Otherwise, we would sort of ‘miss’ the whole point of doing the experiment. Am I right?”
I had to laugh. “That’s exactly what it means. It’s like when you play darts, and try to hit the bull’s-eye (target), then miss it, you know what that feels like, right?”
“Yes, I know what you mean. You try but you do not succeed. Like when I call out to a pretty girl but she just walks past and ignores me. ” We both laughed.
“It looks like you and I really hit it off. Can you tell me what I mean by that?” I asked.
He thought hard, then replied: “Does it mean we play well together? Oh, but that’s silly. Could it be ... that we get along?”
“Yes, you’re right. Now, tell me, do you and your mother hit it off at home?” Woon shrugged his shoulders. “Sometimes. I think I hit it off better with my father. He’s more understanding. My mother nags a lot.”
“Talking about your mother,” I asked, “does she hit the roof often?”
“What!?” I laughed. “To hit the roof means to become very angry in a matter of minutes.”
“Oh, yes,” said Woon excitedly. “Just yesterday, she was mad at me because she thought I had not gone for my tuition class. The truth was, I had a club meeting at school and had forgotten to inform her.”
“So how did she hit out at you? With words or with a cane? “What do you mean?” asked Woon . “Well, when we hit out at someone, it means we attack them with words or blows.”
“Oh, she was mad. She scolded me for being so irresponsible. She nags a lot but she doesn’t hit me. It’s my brother who will hit me every now and then. But it’s all right. I hit him right back! ”
I had to laugh at Woon’s honesty. “OK,” I said “It’s almost six now. I think it’s time you went home. We don’t want your mother to hit the roof again, do we? By the way, here’s one last question for you – what time do you normally hit the sack every night?”
“Hit the sack? What is this – kungfu? Wrestling?”
I laughed. “No, Woon, to hit the sack means ‘ to go to bed’.
“English is so complicated,” said Woon. “Anyway, I hit the sack at 10pm every night. OK, bye, teacher, I’m going home now.” “Yes, Woon. It’s time you hit the road.” “ Hit the road? Wait, let me guess. Does it mean to go home?”
I laughed. “It means to go on a journey. Yours is to go home. ”
After he left, I listened to a few more hit songs on TV before I went to the kitchen to heat up some leftover soup for myself.
If you’re reading this, be careful not to confuse the word “hit” with the word “heat”. To “heat” something is to warm it up or make it hot. But the word “hit” has something to do with action, force or behaviour.
For instance, a man who hits the bottle regularly is a man who likes alcoholic drinks and may get drunk. When he goes home, he may get into a heated argument (a noisy quarrel) with his wife, particularly if she is a hottempered woman who hits the roof (gets angry) easily. See the difference?