Q From Jamie Bradley: I wonder if you could tell me the origin of the phrase sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite. A friend of mine believes that it comes from medieval England when mattresses were merely bags of feathers or cloth. A rope was then tied around it and pulled tight to make a more firm and comfortable bed. If a bed was pulled very tight it could compress and trap any inhabiting fleas, bedbugs and assorted greeblies. What do you think?
A The big problem with that explanation, apart from the inherent unlikelihood of any self-respecting bedbug being put off by a little thing like tight bedclothes, is that the phrase sleep tight is relatively recent. It’s part of a rhyming formula addressed to children, of which one version is “good night, sleep tight”. The Oxford English Dictionary records it only from 1933, though I’ve discovered that it appears in L Frank Baum’s Rinkitink In Oz, dated 1916: “Eat hearty, sleep tight, and pleasant dreams to you”. And this entry occurs 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”. (In the dictionary-making business these are called antedatings, and send word-hunters like me into paroxysms of delight.) I’d guess, not having been able to find an instance, that the fuller rhyme about the bedbugs is more recent than any of these.
However, there is a possible sense of sleep tight which some people have suggested as an origin. Before the days of sprung mattresses, one method of creating a comfortable surface to lie on was to stretch ropes across from side to side of the bedframe in a criss-cross pattern. The ropes sagged after a while, and it was necessary to tighten them from time to time. I’ve seen such beds in museums of the American colonial period, as well as the forked wooden tools that helped tighten the ropes. It is possible that sleep tight originally referred to a bed of this kind. However, there’s no evidence, and the late date of first appearance of the phrase rather militates against this being the source.