I love discovering the original meaning of expressions, sayings and words we routinely utter without ever knowing why. The real, and often surprising origins, often leave me speechless, and I usually encounter them in the oddest of ways.
A few weeks ago my husband and I took our sons to a local historic site we had long known about but never visited (think Manhattan residents who rarely even glance at the Empire State Building) – Historic Speedwell, birthplace of the telegraph system that first made Morse code workable. In addition to the ironworks and other industry-oriented buildings, is a restored home and in one of the bedrooms was a round, stout hammered metal tub with a lip seat on one side and on the other, a spout. Bathtime, according to the teenage docent, consisted of filling the tub and then each family member, in descending order of age, took their turns washing. When finally the youngest child, usually a toddler or older baby, finished, the tub was tipped, the water draining from the spout.
Careful: Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.
I immediately brightened, having now an authentic scenario to conjure when I used that expression. The boys predictably didn't find this so interesting; which shows my age I suppose more than any literary bent.
Next was another bedroom, set up to resemble one shared by several children, and the docent peeled up the straw-stuffed mattress to reveal ropes crisscrossed frame to frame. She picked up an odd looking wooden thing, called it a key, and demonstrated how, about once a week, those ropes needed to be pulled taut to ensure a restful and supportive night's sleep.
Thus: Sleep tight.
Both a practical expression: tighten the bed ropes or your back will be sorry – and a sincere sentiment: hope you have a comfortable night's sleep. See guys, I said to the boys: it doesn't mean pull the covers around tight after all.
They seemed both intrigued and abashed.
I felt really smart about my new Sleep Tight knowledge until last week when I read The Kitchen God's Wife, in which Amy Tan conjures pre-World War II China, and relates the lovely custom of snugly wrapping small children for sleep individually in their own personal quilts, even when sharing a bed. Nowhere in Tan's text does it suggest the Chinese have an expression for "sleep tight" that refers to this tradition, but don't you think it's possible?
And now, please feel completely free to leave a comment about how wrong I (and the folks at Speedwell) might be on all counts. Because if there's one thing I know, and love, about language, is that very often, there's more than one explanation, more than one way to skin a cat, that it's sometimes six of one and half-a-dozen of another, that….well, you get the idea.
What's your favorite unusual origin of a common expression?