Historically Speaking

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Forty Winks

Posted by Admin on August 20, 2019

The language of slumber is one that has some strange twists and turns to it, where sense seems to be nonsense, and nonsense sometimes makes sense.

If you need to catch or take forty winks, you need a nap because forty winks isn’t a good night’s sleep. But why do people call a nap forty winks?

A blink doesn’t last long. It doesn’t even last a second. But if all you need is a few minutes rest, then forty winks should be enough … especially during the day.

But how long is a blink? A blink is longer than a jiffy (read up on shake of a lamb’s tail for more details on this) so scientifically speaking, forty winks should be about 15 seconds long. Since most naps are far longer than 15 seconds, the idiom is meant to imply a forty wink nap is not dissimilar from how short employers feel a coffee break should be.

SIDE NOTE 1: In astrophysics and quantum physics a jiffy is the time it takes for light to travel one fermi. A fermi is about the size of a nucleon.

A full cycle nap according to scientists and medical researchers is 90 minutes long. A cat nap is much shorter at 7 minutes.

That being said, the number forty has been used since long before Biblical times to describe an indefinite time — long but not too long. Shakespeare used the number in some of his plays in this way, and even Welsh poet, orator, and Church of England priest George Herbert (3 April 1593 – 1 March 1633) used the number similarly in a letter to his father in law, John Danvers, when he ended it with this closing.

I have forty businesses in my hands: your Courtesie will pardon the haste of
Your humblest Servant,
George Herbert.

SIDE NOTE 2: George Herbert was the brother of the 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury. They and their eight siblings were the grandchildren of Sir Edward Newport, Lord of Cherbury. They were also the grandchildren of Sir Richard Newport, ruler of souther Powys. THeir father, Richard Herbert was the sheriff and deputy lieutenant of the county of Montgomery.

That being said, a wynk (wink) meant a sleep in the 14th Century when William Langland (1332 – 1400) wrote “Vision and Creed of Piers Ploughman” published in 1377. In fact, in his epic poem, there is a lot of wynkyng, none of which involved anything but sleep.

In Volume I, in “Passus Quintus de Visione, ut supra” (which was the second vision the dreamer had which is retold in this poem), the poet wrote:

Thanne waked I of my wynkyng,
And wo was withalle,
That I ne hadde slept sadder,
And y-seighen moore.

So how and when did forty get hitched to winks (or wynks) — and separated from one wink (or wynk) meaning a sleep — to mean a nap?

Back in 1960, the B-side on the Neil Sedaka release “Stairway To Heaven” was written by Barry Mann and Larry Kolber, and told the story of a lonely guy far away from his gal, but he knew she was just “Forty Winks Away” in his dreams.

On 15 March 1924, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896 – 1940) published a short story in The Saturday Evening Post titled, “Gretchen’s Forty Winks.” The number forty appears a number of times in the story, but in relation to taking a nap, it is found in this passage.

When Tompkins dropped them in front of their house at eleven Roger and Gretchen stood for a moment on the sidewalk looking at the winter moon. There was a fine, damp, dusty snow in the air, and Roger drew a long breath of it and put his arm around Gretchen exultantly.

‘I can make more money than he can,’ he said tensely. ‘And I’ll be doing it in just forty days.’

‘Forty days,’ she sighed. ‘It seems such a long time–when everybody else is always having fun. If I could only sleep for forty days.’

‘Why don’t you, honey? Just take forty winks, and when you wake up everything’ll be fine.’

She was silent for a moment.

In Act III, Scene I of the play “Deacon Brodie or the Double Life” by Robert Louis Stevenson (13 November 1850 – 3 December 1894) and William Ernest (W.E.) Henley (23 August 1849 – 11 July 1903) and published in 1882 (just a few years before Stevenson published The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886), the characters Jean, Smith, and Moore find themselves in a public place in Edinburgh, loitering. The exchange with forty winks mentioned is found at the beginning of the scene.

MOORE:
Wot did I tell you? Is he ‘ere, or ain’t he? Now, then. Slink by name and Slink by nature, that’s wot’s the matter with him.

JEAN:
He’ll no be lang; he’s regular enough, if that was a’.

SMITHER:
Badger, you brute, you hang on to the lessons of your dancing-master. None but the genteel deserves the fair: does they, Duchess?

MOORE:
O rot! Did I insult the blowen? Wot’s the matter with me is Slink Ainslie.

SMITH:
All right, old Crossed-in-love. Give him forty winks, and he’ll turn up as fresh as clean sawdust and as respectable as a new Bible.

MOORE:
That’s right enough; but I ain’t agoing to stand here all day for him. I’m for a drop of something short, I am. You tell him I showed you that (showing his doubled fist). That’s wot’s the matter with him.

SIDE NOTE 3: Deacon William Brodie was a cabinet maker, town councilman, and head of the Incorporation of Wrights and Masons in Edinburgh by day, and the head of a burglary gang who had a serious gambling addiction and two mistresses by night. He was caught during an armed robbery at Chessel Court in 1786 and hanging two years later on 1 October 1788.

SIDE NOTE 4: The character of Robert Louis Stevenson’s character Long John Silver was inspired by William Ernest Henley who suffered from tuberculousis of the bone from the time he was 12 years of age, resulting in the amputation of his left leg below the knee at age 20.

SIDE NOTE 5: William Ernest Henley’s daughter, Margaret, was the inspiration for Wendy in the J.M. Barrie children’s classic, Peter Pan. Unfortunately, she was a sickly child and died on 11 February 1894 at age five. The play first opened on 27 December 1904 at the Duke of York Theater in London.

In Volume 55 of the Westminster Review published in mid-1851, an extensive article discussed electro-biology as a repackaging of charlatanism, somnolism, phycheism, and mesmerism. The expression forty winks — in quotation marks — was used.

The Fakirs of India are said to throw themselves into a trance by looking at the tips of their noses; but whether trance be induced, or sleep, by that or any corresponding process, must always depend, more or less, upon the constitution of the patient. The same visual or mental effort that would give to one person his quiet “forty winks” after dinner, would throw an epileptic person into a fit.

SIDE NOTE 6: Mesmerism is named after Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer (23 May 1734 – 5 March 1815) which he introduced to society in 1770. He is considered the father of hypnosis. It was not accepted as a viable therapy until 1958 when the American Medical Association approved hypnosis as a therapeutic procedure.

Back in 1828 when George Eliot was Mary Ann Cross — and long before she married her husband Mr. Evans — she wrote in her journal that she had “forty winks on a sofa in the library.”

Dr. William Kitchiner (1775 – 1827) wrote a self-help guide, published in 1821, which was titled, “The Art of Invigorating and Prolonging Life by Food, CLothes, Air, Exercise, Wine, Sleep, and More.” Already known for his previous books, including “The Cook’s Oracle”, The Literary Chronicle and Weekly Review of London (England) reviewed the Dr. Kitchiner’s latest book in its November 24th edition that year.

The review begins with letting readers know that not only is Dr. Kitchener the author of a number of books, but also the author of a book on telescopes which proved him to be “an excellent optician.” The reviewer also saw fit to state that the author was known to his friends as “a musical amateur, an advocate for good living at the least possible expense, for indulging in all the luxuries of epicurism, with due care to avoid its injurious effects.” A nod to the author’s age — that being 43 years of age at the time the book was published — is mentioned as well.

The review included this passage:

Sleep is a subject on which our author acknowledges his feelings are tremblingly alive; he is fond of a ‘forty-winks‘ nap in an horizontal posture, as the best preparative for any extraordinary exertion, either of body or mind.

Idiomation was unable to find an early published version of forty winks meaning a nap — not a long sleep — prior to 1821 when it is used in quotations. So while winks (and wynks) clearly referred to sleep for a few hundred years, forty winks meaning a nap seems to have come about in the early 1800s.

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