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Sleep Tight : Phrases


Sleep well.


Good night, sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite!


Before box springs were in use, old bed frames used rope pulled tightly between the frame rails to support a mattress. If the rope became loose, the mattress would sag making for uncomfortable sleeping. Tightening the ropes would help one get a good night sleep.

Alternative #1: Though it would otherwise sound plausible, the above explanation seems to be an after-the-fact kind of reasoning that is commonly attributed to many metaphors. First off, most metaphors are simply that, metaphorical. In this instance, I could find no written example of this phrase referring to beds in any children's stories (or otherwise). Moreover, though the earliest recorded phrase dates to the 1860s, it seems to imply
soundly or well: In a diary by Susan Eppes ('Through Some Eventful Years', May 2nd, 1866): 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. Further contrary evidence includes the very definition of tight: The OED gives, as a late 18th century definition of tight: 'soundly, roundly', also the adverb tightly was used in the late 16th century to mean 'soundly, properly' or 'well'. Though this lack of evidence concerning a connection to the rope bed is not definitive, it does give good reason for doubting the rope bed explanation. More likely, this term is probably a late 19th/early 20th century rhyme (made after rope beds went out of common use and probably unrelated to them) which was only later associated with the rope bed because it seemed plausible to make that connection. It is unlikely that for the hundreds of years that rope beds have been around, nobody ever wrote this common phrase down in the form we now know. Perhaps it is that we hear something so often it becomes true to us even though all evidence is to the contrary. Thanks to Brian Morrill.

Alternative #2: An alternate explanation may derive from the Settlement Era of the Westward Expansion. As noted in other discussions on the subject, pioneer homes of the early half of the 19th century were often infested with all manner of insect-bedbugs, lice, and fleas were common bedtime companions. As several compendiums of early Kentucky history note, travelers would often choose to sleep on the floor even when offered the choice bed. De Tocqueville relates some of these conditions in his essays of American travel. It was a common practice to wrap oneself completely in a blanket in an effort to deter the aggravation of bed pests until one fell asleep. Children were wrapped tightly, or bundled. Bundling was a common practice in these times also for controlling the activity of infants and toddlers whilst the mother accomplished her daily tasks. Thanks to Patrick Thrush.

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