Monday, September 20, 2010

Bugged by the "sleep tight" story

It was a minor irritation, I admit. But I wasn't happy to hear, along with the latest news on the bedbug resurgence, the return of the etymological legend about the origins of "sleep tight" -- and in respectable news outlets, too. First it showed up in the New York Times, in a letter printed in the Sept. 7 Science Times:
The expression “Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite” is often said to refer to colonial times, when children slept on rope beds underneath their parents’ beds. The ropes would be tightened for support — thus “sleep tight.” Too bad the bugs haven’t gone the way of the rope bed. 
The next day I heard it on "Fresh Air," where Terry Gross was interviewing a "professor of urban entomology" named Michael Potter. The rhyme, he solemnly told listeners, dated to the 1500s or 1600s, referring to the rope lattice that supported mattresses back in the day.

Not very likely. The OED says "sleep tight" just means "sleep soundly," and the skeptical view of the faux etymology has been available for some time at Michael Quinion's World Wide Words and at The Phrase Finder, which note that "sleep tight" is not really very old.  Their earliest citation comes from Susan Bradford Eppes, 1866: "Goodbye little Diary. 'Sleep tight and wake bright,' for I will need you when I return." And no bedbugs appeared till the 20th century, they said.

But there was newer news, it turned out, on "don't let the bedbugs bite." The day after the "Fresh Air" broadcast, New York word sleuth Barry Popik weighed in at his blog with a wealth of additional "sleep tight" citations.  He found the pests (called bugs, buggers, skeeters, and mosquitoes) infesting the bedtime sentiment as early as 1881, just 15 years after the earliest "straight" version: "'Good-night, sleep tight; And don’t let the buggers bite,' said Fred."

In any case, there's no reason a bedbug discussion should divagate into the origins of "sleep tight," since the phrase has nothing to do with repelling insects. It seems pretty clear from Popik's list of Google cites that the buggy versions were earthy variations on a sweet Victorian sentiment, coined for no better (or worse) reason than shock value and a snappy rhyme.

27 comments:

Everything Under the sky said...

It is amazing how terminologies we often believed to have originated recently have existed for generations and at the same same time the opposite is also true. The fact that there are many versions for the same story highlights the oft repeated quote "History is written by the victorious and no the defeated".

I reached via Blogs of note and must say I enjoyed this post thoroughly. Will get back as often as possible to keep abreast of 'new' developments :)!

Nicole Grotepas said...

I can't believe you heard someone spreading misinformation on NPR, of all places. ;)

I'm with you. It's frustrating when people make up origins for idioms. It doesn't help anything. It's hard to know what is true with these, however, such as the classic "don't throw the baby out with the bathwater." True or not? I haven't looked it up, so I haven't done my research, but it's as likely to be true as not true (the whole bathing thing, where the baby was the last one to get bathed in the family bath-water, etc.). The origins of some expressions are so crazy that it's difficult to differentiate between the truth and lies without digging through old newspapers, dictionaries, and books yourself.

Enjoyed your post (found it through Blogs of Note).

Misha Spring Dawn said...

Nice article, however, I am not sure you are in recovery. That is okay I need the nitpickers in the world as I am on the other side of the fence.
Cheers,
Misha

Tusnoticias de actualidad said...

***Excellent***

Nick said...

All wrong. Half a bottle of bourbon, and you'll sleep tight.

willow said...

Dropping in to browse your interesting blog. I'm nutty for etymology, so I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Congratulations on being chosen today's "Blog of Note"!

Olívia Németh said...

What a lovely blog :)

Tom said...

As you say, it may be just a "snappy rhyme", but in my family there was a little more to it.
"Good night, don't let the bedbugs bite.
If they do, beat 'em with a shoe,
Till they're all black and blue!"
This was my grandmother's version, and I wasn't aware until recently that it wasn't all that common. :P

Thanks for the interesting read!

Alison said...

I found your Blog through Blogs of Note as well, and I will be checking in regularly for a fix! I am not even a recovering nitpicker.... still have the condition I'm afraid! I really enjoyed this post and will trawl back through your older ones.

DaveOnFidalgo said...

I enjoyed your blog discovered in "Blogs of Note." It's a shame you don't make it possible to follow it.

The Unofficial Manipal University Blog said...

@DaveOnFidalgo I believe it is possible to follow this blog via the blogger navbar at the top. Congratulations on the blog of note. Enjoyed this post.

What is a Nitpicker?

APIPA said...

I love this blog.

mr.Q said...

i love this blog :)

margarito vs pacman said...

i so agree that the buggy version is earthly.. and misinformation can spread like virus..

Juniper said...

Hi, I am a new follower and have awarded your blog an - er - award! You can find the details in my latest post 24 Sept.

Dreams and Reality

Thanks for a great blog from a fellow grammar nickpicker ;-)

~Juniper~

Eka ninjitsu said...

hi... it's Nice article

A.M.Issy said...

I recently bought and have been reading a book called "Common Phrases and Where they come from". I think you should join their research crew. : )

It is a very interesting read and I recommend it to you as I can see your interesting in the origins of phrases. At least certain ones.

I enjoy your blog muchly.

A.M.Issy

Anonymous said...

Cool

THE self-proclaimed-die-expert said...

congrats on on rating as a "Blog of note". Nice blog. And I must say i can't help but note the timing.

Finding the blog of a language "nitpicker" on a day of entomological etymology.

"nitpicker": role of inspecting human hair for infestation of lice, and removal of the live bugs and eggs (nits).

One of my favorite words since when my wife volunteers to help out at the elementary school I get to shamelessly refer to her "nitpicking".

Enus said...

So the lady showing tourists through Shakespeare's house in Stratford was lying to me about that phrase? This will not do!

Absolutely love your blog. I enjoy it immensely

Joel C Anatoli said...

Thats interesting.

The Midnight Writer said...

lurking for good reads via Blogs of Note and got drawn to your very interesting blog.

same with willow here, I definitely enjoyed your post as I like to study the origins phrases ^_^

cheers!

Philolog said...

Jan,

I love your blog. Thank you for picking nits!

I was also puzzled by the expression, "sleep tight," and wrote about it on 4/29/07 on philologsblog.blogspot.com.

Congratulations!

E Boyce said...

Think you would love my comparison of bed bugs and illegal aliens on Technorati. You can find it under articles by Ellsworth Boyce. Love your work.

Gary Baker said...

So not an instruction to attempt a sound night's sleep by ignoring the DT visions? I need to rethink my bedtime ritual.

Vivingva said...

Man you might need to get together with that Eat, Shoots, and Leaves lady. Ha!

mimislifelessons.blogspot.com

Phil Smith said...

"good night, sleep tight and don't let the buggers bite" did first appear in Boscobel: a novel - by Emma Mersereau Newton, 1881, but it wasn't until 1896 that the expression was used with "bedbugs". That was the book What They Say in New England: a book of signs, sayings and superstitions, but Clifton Johnson, 1896.