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Sleeping one’s head into train oil

Q From Chester Graham: Is anyone familiar with the expression sleeping her head into train oil for someone who is sleeping longer than usual? I have only one family as a source for it, as a Scots use in Australia.

A This expression is unrecorded in any of the references books here, so I asked subscribers for what they knew.

Jill Williams commented that she knew the saying, either in that form or as Sleeping your brains into train oil. She commented: “Not one family’s expression, but certainly a Scottish one in my experience. I’ve heard it from my Scots husband and others here in the Glasgow area to mean sleeping for so long that one is really dopey and lethargic as a result”. Roy Pugh remembers Time to wake up — or you’ll sleep your brains to train oil. He says: “The saying is quite familiar to me; I have used it myself, and probably still would if I could wake up in time. I believe it was used in my family (who had no Scottish roots) in Sydney in the early 1950s”. So it wasn’t just one family’s saying, but a more widely known one in both Scotland and Australia.

What is certain is that the term train oil itself was once very common, and that it has nothing to do with railways. It’s the formal name for whale oil, originally that from the Greenland right whale. From the fifteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century much was burnt to light the houses and streets of cities on both sides of the Atlantic (in the eighteenth century, London’s reputation as the best-lit city in Europe was partly the result of its easy access to train oil brought in by the whaling fleet based in the city’s docks). Whale oil was also used to make soap and for other purposes. The word comes from an Old High German one for a droplet or tear, because the oil was originally extracted drop by drop by pressing the whale blubber.

So the saying presumably contained the idea that sleeping too much turned one’s brains to mush, a fair enough description. But how this strange expression came about, or when, or exactly where, is still wholly mysterious.

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Page created 17 Nov 2001