Puzzler Cathy Parker asks why we say we ‘fall’ asleep. One theory is that when you nod off in a chair, your head falls forward. If you’re lying down, it feels like falling, as you sink into the bed and go to sleep.
Another theory is that to fall asleep, like falling ill or falling in love, is to lose power over your actions – they are all involuntary actions, like falling.
Cathy also asks why we say wake up – why ‘up’? ‘Wake’ comes from Old English wacan, which derived from weg ‘to be strong, lively’. ‘Up’ is often attached to a verb to give an added level of activity.
All this talk of sleep is making me feel drowsy, sluggish, heavy-eyed, torpid. I feel like having a doze, nap, catnap, rest, repose, slumber, snooze. Or taking a siesta, getting some shut-eye, having forty winks.
Failure to sleep is insomnia, which comes from Latin in ‘not’ + somnus ‘sleep’. Somnus is also the root of somnolent ‘drowsy’, somnambulist ‘sleepwalker’ and the lovely word somniferous ‘inducing sleep’.
The Greek word for sleep, hupnos, gives us hypnosis and also hypnopaedia, which means ‘learning by hearing while asleep or under hypnosis’.
Another word meaning ‘sleep-inducing’ is soporific, from Latin sopor ‘deep sleep’.
Sleeping like a baby is supposed to mean ‘sleeping well’ – depending on the baby. Some parents might interpret it as ‘screaming all night for attention’. Sleeping like a log is probably safer.
I could do it in my sleep is a boast that I could do something effortlessly and let sleeping dogs lie means ‘don’t interfere’. You’re sending me to sleep means ‘you’re boring me’.
A sleeping partner is a partner not sharing in the actual work of a firm and a sleeping policeman is a hump in the road designed to slow traffic down.
The wonderful thing about sleep is that, while the world changes around us, very little has changed about sleep over the years. Since men and women first spent a day foraging for food or fighting off wild animals, they needed to sleep at night. Our bodies need to recuperate from the physical stress of the day.
So make sure you get plenty of shut-eye. You may find that, when searching for the answer to a tricky clue, after a good night’s sleep it will suddenly pop into your head in the morning.