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I have to hit the books tonight, that is I have to study for school.

According to the sources I could find online the saying “hit the books” has no clear origin. The more common assumptions refer to older sayings like hit the rail or hit the road from which hit the books probably derived. Its earliest usages are from mid-20th c.

Are there more plausible and possibly documented origins of the this saying?

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    Not sure I'd have bothered to remember this one even if I have heard it before. But it looks to me like pretty transparent riffing off hit the hay / sack (not to mention hit the bottle, hit the town,...), which could well have been "re-coined" hundreds or thousands of times. I can't see it needs any more of an "origins" story than that. Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 11:44
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    ...the earliest written instance I can find with this sense is Princeton Alumni Weekly (1920) - Am rested up from the Christmas excitement and find it a relief to hit the books and get on the good old Tech schedule of 16 hours a day Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 11:51
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    @EdwinAshworth: How does hit the nail on the head come from archery? This is a typical page from what I could find. No mention of archery. Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 15:45
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    The metaphor is group- and task-oriented. Hit the X means, roughly, 'join us in attacking X', where X might be a job, a game, a battle, an upcoming exam (hit the books means 'study', so it's not always group-oriented), or an upcoming pleasant event (hit the town/the shore/the bars). This is not to be confused with hit on, which is a different idiom altogether. Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 15:46
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    Hit the... isn't group oriented. Certainly it would be ok to say "I'm going to hit the sack" and go off to bed while everyone else is still up. "Hit the road" is often used as an instruction to a single person to leave town. And "hit the books" is similar - it's very commonly used by a single person, because at college most work is done on one's own.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 16:29

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"Hit the books" in the sense of "study hard" dates back to at least 1916. From "Martinsville Quintet Wins; Lebanon on Top," in the Indianapolis [Indiana] News (March 17, 1916):

All places where eats may be obtained are filled, and this morning, when all the teams and their supporters had arrived, there was scarcely room on the sidewalks except at the expense of ones life. The university is closed as far as the pursuit of scholastic arts and the humanities are concerned, and the student body, which has been hitting the books for midterm exams has been granted a vacation by the faculty in order that the basketball teams may be entertained.

And from "The Contemporary Press: New Time," in the [Champaign, Illinois] Daily Illini (April 6, 1918), reprinted from the Oklahoma Daily:

Get down the Big Ben and figure out when you will have to start studying if you want to get anywhere in the university. Forget that Old Sol has the time changed on him and don't worry about the sun but hit the books about the same time as usual. Everyone knows it is hard to study when its nice and light out, but Uncle Sam is not only running the war but is winding the clock as well. Don't let the sun fool you when you start to get those lessons this evening.

Evidently, this article is referring to a shift to daylight savings time instituted in the United States during World War I to maximize daylight hours of work (and thus minimize civilian use of electricity).

This sense of "hit the X" in the sense of "plunge or dive into X" did not originate with "hit the books." A kindred form of hitting appears in "hit the hay" (that is, go to bed"), which appears at least as early as 1905. From "Lonely Idol of the Fickle Fans" in the [Washington, D.C.] Evening Star (July 30, 1905):

The result is that the modern professional [base]ball player, though unable to show his personality in public, demonstrates it all the more in private. He has a language of his own—a moral code—a habit of life. Going to bed for him is to "hit the hay." Diamonds—and every professional loves to flash them—he calls "ice." While skeptical of womanhood in general, he believes implicitly in his wife, whom he places on a pedestal, and will resent with a blow he least insult to her. As I said before, he believes the whole world is against him—he leads a lonely life.

But "hit the books" has a somewhat more complicated backstory than "hit the hay" does. A newspaper search for "hit the books" finds matches for the phrase from as early as 1881—and continuing at least into the early 1920s—in a sports betting sense that seems to have meant costing bookmakers (bet handlers) heavily. The earliest matches for "hit the books" in this sense appear in Australian newspapers. For example, from "V.R.C. Autumn Meeting" in the [Brisbane, Queensland] Queenslander (March 12, 1881):

The unfavourable demonstration at Flemington that is said to have stung Mr. Long into writing to the Argus on the subject of scratching his horses, opens up the old subject of a horseowner's responsibility to the public. Mr. Long says he scratches his horses only to suit his own convenience, and advises the public never to back them till they come to the post. It will be remembered that Mr. Ivory put the pen through Sweetmeat's name just before a big race, because the public had forestalled him in the market, and he did not choose to run his horse for the public benefit while unable himself to get a fair price about him. Mr. Long makes no complaint about his horse's price, and as the horse was a warm favourite, his owner gave the ring a tremendous haul by not scratching Flaneur till the day before the race. As he is reported to have hit the books very heavily with the aid of this prodigious three-year-old, he may have thought it politic to give them a turn by putting a few thousands of dead money into their pockets. The rumours of the horse having trained unkindly are hardly borne out by Flaneur's very easy win in the Town Plate, and it seems more probable that Mr. Long did not care to incur the 51b. penalty which the Cup win would have entailed, thus jeopardising his chances for the Sydney Cup.

And from "What People Are Saying," in the Warwick [Queensland] Argus (June 22, 1886):

That by Pirate's double victory at Rockhampton host "Jerry" of the Criterion hit the "books" to the tune of £150.

That to judge by their conduct at the conclusion of the race for the Fort Collins handicap the loud-mouthed gentry seem to have lost heavily.

That unless the books lose honest men have a very poor chance of winning.

But the same betting slang appeared in the United States by the mid-1890s. From "The Turf: Brighton Beach Races: Large Crowds, Spirited Betting, and Many Upsets," in the [New York] Clipper (July 28, 1894):

The talent spent a very enjoyable and profitable day at Brighton Beach July 17. They hit the books so hard that the occasion will be remembered for some time to come. The fact is that His Grace was the only outsider that captured a purse during the day. A fog set in about the time the racing started, and patrol judges had to be appointed to watch the running. The betting was of a spirited nature and the talent had everything its own way when it came o picking the winners.

And from "One Long Sjhot Straggled In: Rey del Bandidos, Aided by the Starter's Flag, Womn at 25 to 1," in the [San Francisco, California] Morning Call (February 21, 1895):

The two-year-old race was marred by the very bad start, half of the youngsters being left at the post. The race was one by Murry's Rey del Bandidos, backed down from 23 to 1. This colt had been working very fast in private, and on his first start was well backed, but he was at rather short odds in the betting and his run that day was very much off color.

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Ed Purser hit the books hard by the victory of Rey del Bandidos.

Rey de Bandidos was listed in the box score summary for the third race as drawing bets at 10 to 1 making it a medium shot in the race, behind an 8 to 5 favorite, two 5 to 1 horses, and two 9 to 1 picks. I don't understand how the 10 to 1 odds cited there can be reconciled with the headline's 25 to 1 and the main story's 23 to 1.

There is no obvious organic connection between "hit the books" in the sports betting sense and "hit the books" in the intensive study sense, so it is certainly possible that the two senses of the phrase arose completely independently of each other. Nevertheless, the fact that the term arose in sports betting more than three decades before it began to appear in the context of student slang and the fact that the term was still in use in its sports betting sense when the studying sense emerged at least raise the possibility that the existence of the former may have influenced the emergence of the latter.

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