The Interesting Origins of Your Favourite Sleep Phrases
Between the Sheets

The Interesting Origins of Your Favourite Sleep Phrases

We use so many expressions, idioms, and slang terms daily that don't make literal sense when examined. We've researched some of our favourite sleep phrases to discover the fascinating - and sometimes strange - etymology behind them.

Good night, sleep tight

Many people believe that this phrase harks back to a time when mattresses were supported by ropes, and “tight” refers to the tautness of the ropes. In reality, the word “tightly” had an alternate meaning historically: “soundly, properly, well”. People used to say they were tight asleep instead of sound asleep.

Forty winks

Since the 14th century, the word wink has been used to denote a short sleep or nap. The number forty is possibly a biblical reference, as it is often used as a benchmark to indicate “a lot of time” rather than a specific number (for example, 40 days and 40 nights, or wandering the desert for 40 years). Or, perhaps if you replace winks with minutes, forty minutes is the ideal length of time for a nap!

Sleep like a log

This one seems pretty intuitive, right? Logs are immobile and difficult to move, just like someone sleeping soundly. Some historians believe that this phrase actually comes from the sound of sawing being similar to the sound of snoring!

Sleep like a baby

Anyone with newborn baby will find irony in this phrase. After Bob Dole was defeated in the presidential campaign of 1996, he famously said, “I slept like a baby. I woke up every three hours and cried.” While babies don’t sleep deeply, they do sleep peacefully and untroubled, something we all wish for.

Rise and shine

This colloquial term has roots all the way back to the Bible. Isaiah 60:1 reads, “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen above thee.” The phrase was later adopted as a wake-up call for soldiers. Rise = rouse yourself out of bed, and shine = shine your boots each morning.

The land of nod

The land of nod is not a mythical place where you go when you fall asleep. This phrase also has Biblical origins: the Land of Nod is the place Cain was exiled to after murdering his brother Abel. It’s no coincidence that people also nod their heads as they’re falling asleep. The author Dean Jonathan Swift first made the pun connecting the two in his 1738 book A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation.

Fast asleep

This is one of those terms that, when examined, is rather confusing. In its current use, fast means “moving or capable of moving at a high speed”. So why does fast asleep mean to sleep soundly? The word fast is a derivative of the Old German word fest, which means “stuck firmly or strongly; not easily movable”. So to be fast asleep is to be immovable, or permanently sleeping.

Hit the Hay

In the late 19th and early 20th century, people would sleep on mattresses made from a cloth sack stuffed with hay or straw. Before bed, they would physically hit the mattresses to make them more comfortable (like fluffing a pillow). This is also where the term hit the sack originates.

Go to the mattresses

Yes, yes, we know… This term doesn’t actually have anything to do with sleep! We just think its history is quite interesting, and who can forget it from The Godfather and The Sopranos (and You’ve Got Mail, to be honest!). We all know that going to the mattresses means to prepare for battle with a rival clan or family. Why mattresses? In the 1530, the city of Florence, Italy was under attack. To preserve the city’s beautiful bell tower from damage from cannon fire, people hung mattresses down the sides of the tower.