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The Word

History of a cliche

Who was first to hit the ground running?

By Jan Freeman
January 18, 2009
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WHEN IT COMES to "hit the ground running," reader Rosalie Hanson has hit the wall, and she threatens to hit the ceiling if she keeps hearing the "inane cliche."

Her pain won't last long. Since Election Day, it's been prime time for the phrase, with thousands of media references to the intentions, desires, and hopes of the new president and his team to "hit the ground running."

This cliche bubble will pop, however, as soon as Obama is inaugurated, as all those pumping feet sink into the swamp of everyday governance. Meanwhile, Hanson wonders, does the expression at least have a good story behind it?

Well, yes and no. "Hit the ground running" is not an etymological mystery like "the full Monty" and the newspaper slang "bulldog edition." But there is some entertaining history, as well as some imaginative conjecture, attached to its origin.

The earliest literal use cited in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from an 1895 story published in several US newspapers. You can read a good chunk of that story at the UK website Phrase Finder, which explains that its source is a tall tale called "King of the Liars." In one fantastic episode, the narrator outruns an assailant with a six-gun: "I knew he had five more cartridges, so I hit the ground running and squatted low down when his gun barked a second time."

The same period furnished Americans with several related idioms: hit the trail, hit the grit (road), and hit the flat (prairies). These are literal uses, though, involving actual ground. When did the phrase acquire the figurative sense that's getting such a workout today?

The Phrase Finder takes it back to a slightly incoherent editorial observation in the Hayward (Calif.) Daily Review, in 1940, about the eagerness of fledgling journalists: "It sometimes seems to me that the young idea nowadays wants to hit the ground running and to tell the old editors how to run things."

I suspect that the same anonymous editor had been on the job for at least a decade. In 1938, the editorial column observed that journalism schools "seem to encourage young people to . . . hit the ground running, upon graduation, with a column in hand."

And in 1931, when Reno's new law made it a quickie divorce destination, the Hayward editorial column reported that "One woman was in such a rush to get her decree that she hit the ground running in the morning . . . simply going to court in her pajamas."

In fact, the figurative sense may have shown up as early as 1918, in a Galveston Daily News item about the Texas governor's appropriation of funds for the state university. The archived page is partly illegible, but the the story says someone "will hit the ground running for the leg-[islature?]." Whoever is running here, the sense is probably not literal.

As for our political use, it was in print as early as 1941, when a letter to a Texas paper endorsed Lyndon Johnson's run for the Senate. Because Johnson is a congressman, the writer said, he'll be able to " 'hit the ground running' when he goes to the senate without missing a lick."

It seems reasonable that "hit the ground running" would have eased seamlessly into figurative usage, given how naturally we equate physical and mental motion. We can "go to work" by driving 20 miles, or "go to work" by opening a computer file or a book, barely moving a muscle.

But some people would like a more romantic, or at least more specific, origin for "hit the ground running." So reader beware: You'll find no shortage of imaginative guesses. A 2004 book, "Words to the Wise," lists as possible sources paratroopers, hoboes hopping (or unhopping) freight trains, Pony Express riders, and even the famous photography of Eadweard Muybridge, who proved that a galloping horse does have all four feet off the ground. Except for the hobo sense - attested by the OED in a 1935 quote - these are speculative or (given the dates) just flat wrong.

Cassell's Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (2002) suggests the expression "probably comes from the military," and quotes the Times of London sneering at it: "Pentagonese has given us infamous little expressions like: 'Hell, that guy's good. He hit the ground running.' "

With access to online sources expanding rapidly, it's a bit surprising to see 21st-century reference books peddling these tales. Sure, it's possible that a Pony Express rider or a freight-train freeloader was the first guy to say "hit the ground running." But it could just as well have been a ranch hand watching a squirrel jump off a fence and scurry to safety; we may never know for sure. Still, reference books and websites really should start telling us which of their etymologies are evidence-based and which are pure fantasy. Pretty soon, we'll all be able to see for ourselves.

(Globe Staff photo illustration)
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