The word 'critical" has three meanings which are dangerous, important, and disapproving. The purpose of this blog is to examine important or over-looked cultural, political, artistic, or historical issues of our time. Also, this blog is intended to be educational.
Thursday, February 2, 2017
The Origins of Common Expression, No. 2: Sleep Tight
tight' is a very well-used phrase in many parts of the English-speaking world.
It's common at bedtime in the form of the rhyme "good night, sleep tight,
don't let the bedbugs bite".
There are many meanings of
the word 'tight' and it's no surprise that there are several theories going the
rounds as to the origin of 'sleep tight'. One is that the phrase dates from the
days when mattresses were supported by ropes which needed to be pulled tight to
provide a well-sprung bed. This was the notion that was put forward on a 2008
BBC antiques show, when the presenter lay on an oak settle to demonstrate the
support provided by the under-stringing and to confidently pronounce "hence
the expression 'night, night, sleep tight'". This explanation seems
unlikely, as it is the bed rather than its occupant that is tight and no one
(in my experience) ever wishes furniture a good night's sleep. He would have
had more luck had he opted to say that 'settle down to sleep' derives from
'settle' or 'seat' - which it does.
The phrase 'sleep tight'
itself was common in the late 20th century, and there could hardly have been a
better way of cementing any phrase into the popular consciousness than by
Lennon and McCartney using it in the lyrics of a song at the height of
Beatlemania. That's where it found itself, inGoodNighton theWhite Albumin 1968: "Now it's time to say
good night, Good night. Sleep tight."
The 'don't let the bedbugs
bite' part has prompted some to suggest that the 'tight' refers to the
tightness of bedclothes, intended to keep bedbugs at bay. That's hardly likely,
as bedbugs live in mattresses and wouldn't be avoided by tying bedclothes
tightly. Also, '...bedbugs bite' is an extended version of the original 'sleep
tight' bedtime message, which didn't start to be used until the mid-20th
century - well after 'sleep tight' was first used.
'Sleep tight' didn't derive
from either bed-coverings or ancient furniture and, in fact, isn't a very old
expression at all. The first citation of it that I can find is from 1866. In
her diaryThrough Some Eventful
Susan Bradford Eppes included:"All is ready and we leave as soon as breakfast
is over. Goodbye little Diary. ‘Sleep tight and wake bright,’ for I will need
you when I return."
There are not many other
known citations until the early 20th century and the OED lists none until 1933,
by which time the innerspring mattress had been invented and most mattresses
were supported by metal straps or springs. This puts the phrase out of general
circulation at the date that rope-strung beds were commonly used, which makes
the rope-stringing origin unlikely at best.
Susan Eppes' line, with its
clear link between 'sleep tight' and 'sleep well', leads us to the most
probable explanation for the phrase. The word tightly, although not often used
in this way now, means 'soundly, properly, well'. The earlier phrase 'tight
asleep' derives from this meaning, as seen in this example from Marie
Beauchamp's novelElizabeth and her
German Garden, 1898: And once, when
there was a storm in the night, she complained loudly, and wanted to know why
lieber Gott didn't do the scolding in the daytime, as she had been so tight
'Tight asleep' just meant
'soundly asleep', or to put it another way 'fast asleep',
and 'sleep tight' just means 'sleep soundly.