Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite

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I saw Dr. Oz do a program on bedbugs the other day and was horrified that such a thing actually exists. 

I imediately stripped all my beds and washed the sheets in hot water!

But that’s not my topic today.

I was wondering about the phrase “sleep tight.”  Does it mean drink a bottle brandy and try to sleep, or just tuck yourself in really well to ward off the cold air.  Here’s what I learned:

‘Sleep 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".

Sleep tightThere are many meanings of the word ‘tight’ and, unsurprisingly, 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’".

Don't let the bedbugs biteThe ‘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 diary Through Some Eventful Years, 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 aren’t many other known citations until the early 20th century until around 1933, by which time the innerspring mattress had been invented and most mattresses were supported by metal straps or springs.

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 novel Elizabeth 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 asleep.

‘Tight asleep’ just meant ‘soundly asleep’ and ‘sleep tight’ just means ‘sleep soundly’.

So now you know.

One thought on “Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite

  1. Hi… For some reason strange things are hapenning with your site layout. The margins look all screwed up. It wasn’t like this Monday. I don’t know if it’s something on my computer or if you’ve made a change… Just thought you might want to look at it.

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