Why is the Sandman in my Bedroom? The Weird Ways We Talk About Sleep

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sandmanWe don’t just sleep. We get visits from the Sandman, we grab forty winks, we catch some Zs, and we hit the hay. Sometimes we get up on the wrong side of the bed.

Where do all these weird sayings come from and why do we use them? Some sleep sayings, like nodding off, cat naps, dead to the world, crashing and shut eye, are fairly self-explanatory. To understand the others will take us from folklore to newspaper comics, and from Rome to the Bible.

Read on to find out why we talk about sleep the way we do.

The Sandman

Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream

– The Chordettes

The Sandman visits us while we sleep, bringing dreams and restful nights. But who is this guy sneaking into our bedrooms?

The Sandman isn’t just limited to North America, and isn’t modern at all. The Sandman is a folkloric character originating from Northern Europe. In traditional mythology, the Sandman sprinkles sand or dust into the eyes of sleepers. This brings dreams and deep sleep.

Unfortunately, the Sandman’s origins aren’t clear. As a mythological figure, his past is lost in legend.

We do know that Hans Christian Anderson put the Sandman on paper in 1841, and gave him the name of Ole Lukøje. His story, which shares the same name, tells of giving dreams to a young child through magical dust scattered into his eyes.

sandmanHis tale tells of the following:

In the evening, while the children are seated at the table or in their little chairs, he comes up the stairs very softly, for he walks in his socks, then he opens the doors without the slightest noise, and throws a small quantity of very fine dust in their eyes, just enough to prevent them from keeping them open, and so they do not see him. Then he creeps behind them, and blows softly upon their necks, till their heads begin to droop. […] Under each arm he carries an umbrella; one of them, with pictures on the inside, he spreads over the good children, and then they dream the most beautiful stories the whole night. But the other umbrella has no pictures, and this he holds over the naughty children so that they sleep heavily, and wake in the morning without having dreams at all.

Another author, E.T.A. Hoffman, also wrote about the Sandman in his story, “The Sandman.” Unlike Hans Christian Anderson, the Hoffman Sandman is a bit less likeable, and a bit more ominous.

Although we don’t know specifically how or why he was created, I can take a guess at why a sandman exists at all. Before bed our eyes can be dry and scratchy – like they are blown with sand. In the morning, the corner of our eyes can be dotted with sand like stuff. It’s a simple, child-like explanation to say ‘a magical man put it there.’

(In fact, this morning residue in the corners of our eyes is actually the salt from dried tears. Not nearly so exciting, but a lot less creepy.)

Forty Winks

Forty winks usually means a nap, rather than a full night’s sleep.

The earliest recorded usage  dates back to 1821, in Dr. Kitchiner’s self-help and health manual, The Art of Invigorating and Prolonging Life:


But why winks, and why are there forty of them?


As far back as the 16th century, the phrase “I couldn’t sleep a wink” was used. Today, we’ll still say the same, or an equivalent. In this context, a wink is a small bit of sleep.

The connection between ‘wink’ and a little sleep does make sense, as sleep is essentially one long, two-eyed wink (or blink).


Forty is an important number, and not just regarding winks. The ancient world loved this number – things seemed to always happen in forties:

  • Alibaba and the forty thieves
  • Forty days of rain during the Biblical Flood
  • Forty years the Jews were lost in the desert
  • Lent is the forty days before Easter
  • Saul, David, Eli, and Solomon ruled for forty years
  • To understand a people, you must live among them for 40 days – Arab proverb

But the number forty doesn’t really mean forty. It was a kind of slang. Forty was been meant in a more general sense – as a stand-in for ‘lots’ or ‘a bunch.’ This is even defined in the Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang from the 1800s, which includes in the definition of forty: ‘many.’

So when we get forty winks, we’re not actually talking about winks, and we don’t even mean forty. But it’s easier than saying ‘a bunch of small sleep increments.’

Catch some Zees

zzzThere are a few theories about why we talk about Zs with sleep, and like most etymological (word origin) studies, it’s difficult to pin down which is correct.

One idea states that ZZZs for sleep began in print form. Newspapers illustrators and cartoonists had a problem – it’s hard to show sleep. A character could be seen as blinking, meditating, stunned, drunk or other things that aren’t sleep. A bunch of ZZZs over a character’s head is a quick way to tell the reader: this guy’s not dead, he’s sleeping. From there, the ZZZs crossed the threshold from the page to spoken word.

Another theory draws a connection to the word ‘snooze.’ With its heavy Z syllable, snooze could be turned into ZZZ for a shorthand reference. So rather than saying get a snooze, we say get some Zs.

Finally, some say that the ZZZs are simply onomatopoeia – a written version of the sound of sleeping. But most snorers I’ve heard don’t have Zs, they have ‘snrrk-honk-shoos‘.

Hit the Sack and Hit the Hay

This one’s an easy one, especially for history buffs. And as we know, our ancestors didn’t sleep like we do.

Beds have not always been the downy, memory-foam padded bits of luxury that we sleep on today. Instead, beds were makeshift and built out of whatever was soft (or at least softer than the floor). Anything is better than sleeping on the cold hard ground, especially for rural or poor folk.

People might use old rags, chaff from the harvest or a pile of cut straw. These could also be put into a sack to keep them contained: a literal sack full of hay was their bed.

So when we ‘hit the sack,’ we fall into our rustic straw-filled beds.

Perhaps the saying should be updated to ‘hit the pillow-top?’ (Call me, Sealy, I’ve got dozens of these.)

Get Up on the Wrong Side of the Bed

If the Sandman doesn’t visit, and we don’t get our 40 winks or our ZZZs, and we hit the sack too late, then the next morning we’ll probably get up on the wrong side of the bed. This classic saying, meaning grouchy or irritable, originates all the way back to the Roman era.

The Romans, as superstitious as anyone, had a particular fear of the left side. Be it the left foot, the left hand, or the left shoe, they never wanted to lead with their lefts. Even their word for left, ‘sinister,’ today means evil or foreboding.

Because of this, ‘getting up on the wrong side of the bed’ means getting out on the left side. It would be bad luck for the Romans to get out of bed and put your left foot down first, and it’s more natural to do this on the left side than on the right.

Over time, the meaning of the phrase changed from bad luck to grouchy, and we’ve generally forgotten that the wrong side of the bed is in fact the left side. But, like the Romans, getting up on the wrong side of the bed is something we still don’t want to do.


Have I forgotten any common sleep sayings that you use? Let me know in the comments.


photo credit: betsystreeter via photopin cc
Pragmagraphr, on Flickr

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