What Does ‘Hit the Hay’ Mean?
4 min read
Last Modified 19 October 2021 First Added 11 October 2021
‘Hit the hay’ is a US American colloquialism meaning ‘to retire for the evening’ or ‘to go to bed’.
Like many expressions that enter into common use from colloquial language, the exact origin of the phrase is virtually impossible to pin down – for example, the phrase ‘hit the hay-stack with the best of us’ appears in The Waverly Novels by Sir Walter Scott, but its meaning is difficult to infer from context.
However, we can pinpoint the approximate time by checking the first occurrences in print. In the case of ‘hit the hay,’ this begins to happen at the turn of the 20th Century when it appears in a novel by Indiana born writer George Ade, who was writing at the time in Chicago, called People You Know:
After Dinner he smoked one Perfecto and then, when he had put in a frolicsome Hour or so with the North American Review, he crawled into the Hay at 9.30 P.M.
The Chicago connection continues for the phrase as, in the same year (1903), The Okland Tribune ran a story on Sam (Smiling Sammy) Berger, a heavyweight boxer, which features the following:
Sam Berger, the Olympic heavyweight […] was sleepy and he announced that ‘he was going to hit the hay’.
There is also another often-reported sporting reference, from Paxton Sport USA in 1905, in which the author states:
[the baseball player] has a language of his own. Going to bed for him is to ‘hit the hay.’
Based on the proliferation of use at the turn of the 20th century, and the multiple references from sports, it’s probably safe to say that the origin of the phrase is likely to have arisen sometime in the late 19th century.
This would also place it within the first rural-urban migration in the US (1870 – 1920) and would therefore also make sense in relation to another commonly held assumption that hitting the ‘hay’ is a reference to the plumping of straw mattresses.
The majority of early US spring mattress firms, such as Serta, Simmons and Sealy Corporation, were incorporated in the late 19th century (1880s onward), but it was still reasonably common for rural families to make their own mattresses – whether by bailing cotton or by stuffing sacks with straw.
Documentation of idioms in print tends to be a lagging factor in determining the origin of colloquial phrases. Barring authors that excel in neologism, writers tend to coin phrases rather than invent them, especially journalists – for whom comprehension is key.
However, an Ngram search for the words does reveal an earlier use:
It’s pretty late now Bette. Time for a soldier boy to hit the hay and dream of the one and only.
The time at which the phrase is first documented is at a midpoint during one of the largest internal migrations of the US population to that point, so it’s no wonder that the period sees a proliferation of phrases from rural communities entering common use in populations more likely to document such terms.
Hit the Hay is the title of a 1945 musical comedy in which a pair of opera promoters persuade a singing farm girl to pose as an opera singer. Eventually, the farm girl sings an opera in swing-time, yodelling the high notes of the arias, saving the opera company from bankruptcy. This early appearance in film is fairly indicative of later use of the phrase in popular culture – where it appears almost anywhere an American writer wishes to convey a ‘folksy’ side to a character.
For readers of a certain age, the phrase also appears in the title of a lesser-known track by a band called Rednex – which those readers may know as the band behind school disco favourite Cotton Eye Joe.