Monday, October 4, 2010

"Sleep tight," one more time

A few weeks ago, I lodged a complaint here about the return of the "sleep tight" etymythology in some media outlets that should know better.  But those were mere bedbug bites compared with what's on the way. According to the Wall Street Journal's review, best-selling author Bill Bryson repeats the legend in his new book,  "At Home." The Journal's paraphrase:
 When parents kiss their children good night and say, "Sleep tight," it's a fair bet that neither party realizes that the phrase originated in the era of straw-stuffed mattresses. Before the invention of spring mattresses in 1865, bedding would have been suspended by rope lattices that, when they sagged, could be tightened with a key.
Bryson, judging by the book excerpts viewable online, doesn't make nearly so big a deal of it; his reference to "sleep tight" is just a parenthesis ("hence the expression 'sleep tight'").  Still, it's too bad to see such a (justly) popular writer spreading misinformation. As my earlier post noted, the phrase "sleep tight" appeared in the 1860s -- just when the new spring mattresses (assuming that date is correct!) should have begun to make it obsolete. "Sleep tight" means "sleep soundly," and there's no evidence it has any connection at all to rope beds.

13 comments:

Joel C Anatoli said...

isnt it the second post about bed bugs lol?

Anonymous said...

We were just talking about this yesterday! everyone under the (mis)assumption it came from sagging beds!, will perhaps have to enlighten some individuals?
:)

Anonymous said...

Several people forwarded me an e-mail message with this explanation of "sleep tight" (among a dozen other suspect "etymologies"), so it has to be true. In fact, I believe everything I read online and in e-mails. If it weren't true, they wouldn't be allowed to write it, would they? {rolls eyes}

lotsson said...

Bill Bryson is not justly popular. His book The Mother Tongue contains so many errors that I stopped reading after the first chapter. He wouldn't pass Comparative Linguistics 101 at a European university. It's obvious that nobody cared to factcheck it.

Caren Gittleman said...

so happy to find your blog! I LOVE blogs that focus on WORDS!! This one is sure to be one of my faves!!!
I am your newest follower!

Cat Chat http://opcatchat.blogspot.com

Kay L. Davies said...

I actually tried sleeping on one of those rope beds once, most uncomfortable thing ever. And NOTHING, certainly not a key, could tighten the thing.

Kay, Alberta

Linda Chapman said...

I have the book Mother Tongue....perhaps I should read more carefully! Love the post....and to think! I always believed that bit about the tight ropes!

Mary Ann Potter said...

I taught high school English for 37 years. Grammar and spelling errors make me crazy, but context errors nearly push me over my neatly-formed, conservative edge. My latest complaint is the mis-use of the word "closure." (I know that I ought to underline the word here, but I don't know how to do it on the computer.) Road closures instead of road closings, school closures instead of school closings ---- aaarrghhh!

dRoth said...

I always thought it had to do with staying tight and snug in your covers and sheets on a cold night... but alas, the true source of many etymologies will always remain a mystery. Speculation is fun, though!

Peter's Blog said...

Interesting blog. I am learning from you. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

It should be "sleep tightly," anyway.

Anonymous said...

Interesting entry... I remember being told to "sleep tight" (in 1950's,& 60's England ) and never found the reason why :)

I wonder if Bryson's writing is influenced that much by his having lived in England for so long.

I stumbled upon this blog having just watched an American on British TV using the word, 'gotten' in place of our using the word as 'got' but in fact the word gotten although being still quite correct in English English would probably get child a mark down in a school test!

Winston S Churchill, half English, half American, once said that our two countries were divided by a common language - I love that simple explanation.

I'll keep a note of your blog's address...

Best wishes

Allen Garvin said...

Belated late post, but I'm very disappointed it has nothing to do with rope beds. I grew up sleeping on a early 19c rope bed, and I have that bed in my guest room now (my father was an lover of antiques, as well as a dealer). When guests are over, I make it a point of saying "sleep tight!" I've never seen a key for tightening a rope bed, though. The only way I know is laborious: taking the rope off, and putting it back on, pulling it taught at every turn. I do it about once a decade.