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Sleep Idioms

It’s been a hard day’s night, and I’ve been working like a dog

It’s been a hard day’s night, I should be sleeping like a log…

The chances are that you have heard this iconic song by The Beatles many times, but have you ever wondered what “sleeping like a log” means? You’ve probably not had to think very hard about that – logs usually lay still and never toss and turn, just like somebody who sleeps soundly. This is an easy phrase to guess, but there are many English phrases and idioms regarding sleep that are much more obscure.

Hit the hay/hit the sack

Believe it or not, this idiom means “to go to bed”. Doesn’t it sound strange? Why would you punch hay or hit some sack when you want to sleep? The expression was much clearer to people at the beginning of the 20th century who actually often used to sleep on mattresses consisting of a sack stuffed with hay. If you wanted to fluff up the mattress so that it was a little more comfortable to sleep on, you had to hit it repeatedly before lying down for a nap.

To catch some Z’s (pronounced as “Zees”)

This is a newer idiom which means “to get some sleep”. It looks even more random than the first one, but is actually pretty easy to explain. If you ever read comic books, you will know that sleep is usually illustrated by the use of the letter “Z” in a speech bubble above a character’s head. What does the letter have in common with sleep, though? Let’s go back in time. The first use can be traced back to the 1903 comic strip called Katzenjammer Kids. The artists didn’t know how to represent sleep in their work so they chose the letter “Z” because of its close association with the English idiom “sawing wood” which means “snoring”. If you imagine what a saw blade looks like, you will probably be able to guess what “Z” has in common with a saw.

To burn the candle at both ends

So far, we have discussed idioms and phrases illustrating sleep, but how about the lack of it? This idiom refers to people who regularly go to bed late and get up early in the morning. Imagine you light a candle at both ends: it will give you a little more light but burn out twice as fast. Similarly, if you always go to bed late and get up early in the morning, you will manage to do more things but chances are you will soon be pretty exhausted.

English has over twenty-five thousand idioms and phrases and learning even a small fraction may seem like a daunting prospect, but remember that keeping a fresh mind is the key to success. If you hit the sack early, regularly catch some Z’s and never burn the candle at both ends, you will have plenty of energy to perfect your English.

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