Photo by Marina Carresi
The other day I received an email whose title was, “The Academia Community Just Hit a Big Milestone!”. The headline was referring to the fact that the Academia.edu social-networking site now has more than 50 million members. While I celebrate the fact that “Facebook for Faculty” has more members than California or Spain has citizens, I was taken aback by the headline. For me a milestone is a physical thing. I dug one up in my parents’ garden when I was young (see photo). Sure I accept that it can be used metaphorically to mean an important marker or a significant figure but it is still a living metaphor in that I associate the expression ‘to reach/pass a milestone’ with the image of someone walking past a milestone on a road in the English countryside. For instance, a milestone figures large in the pantomime Dick Whittington (see image). So, the mixed metaphor ‘to hit a milestone’ sounds comical: I imagine someone crashing his car into a stone next to the road. If “the Academic Community just1 hit a big milestone”, their car was probably a write-off!
However, there are no milestones in the USA, so ‘a milestone’ there is just an important marker11, a significant figure12 or an impressive number. If you have been trying to achieve such a milestone, it no doubt makes sense to say “to hit a milestone”, just as you hit a target. In other words “to reach/pass/(hit) a milestone” in US English is a dead metaphor. Interestingly, there are a very similar number of Google hits for “reach a milestone” and “hit a milestone” but the latter is about 3% more popular. So it looks like I’ll just have to get used to it.
 just – (in this case) very recently, (literally) a moment ago
 headline – title to a news story
 social-networking site – website for interacting socially (e.g. Facebook)
 while – (in this case) although
 faculty – university teachers, academics
 I thought I’d invented this epithet for Academia.edu but I’ve just discovered that people were using it back in 2010!
 to be taken aback – be surprised
 milestone – (literally) stone next to a road on which the distance to a town is written
 to dig sth. up (dig-dug-dug) – uncover sth., excavate sth.
 sure – (in this case) of course
 marker – indicator, signal
 figure – (in this case) number
 living metaphor – figurative expression that can only be understood in reference to the original connotation
 for instance – for example
 to figure large – be prominent, be important
 pantomime – type of theatrical comedy performed at Christmas
 mixed metaphor – two expressions that have been confused, (in this case) ‘reach a milestone’ and ‘hit a target’23
 to hit (hit-hit-hit) – (possibly) have a collision with
 write-off – vehicle that is so badly damaged that it cannot be repaired
 just – (in this case) only
 to achieve – attain, reach, get to
 just as – in the same way that
 to hit a target (hit-hit-hit) – achieve an objective, attain a goal
 dead metaphor – figurative expression that can be understood without knowing the original connotation
 the latter – the last mentioned, (in this case) the expression “to hit a milestone”
 just – (in this case) simply
 to get used to (get-got-got) – become accustomed to