The Grammarphobia Blog

The ins and outs of sleep

Q: You were asked during your last appearance on WNYC where the phrase “sleep in” comes from. Do you think it may have something to do with maids and other servants who sleep in rather than leave their places of employment?

A: That seems to make sense, but the verbal phrase “sleep in” was apparently first used to mean oversleep or sleep late. The Oxford English Dictionary says this usage is of Scottish origin.

The earliest published reference in the OED for “sleep in” comes from Christine Isobel Johnston’s novel Elizabeth de Bruce (1827): “For ye ken that like myself ye whiles sleep in on a morning.”

Although the OED‘s primary definition of the phrase is “to sleep in the house, or on the premises, where one is employed,” all nine of the citations given refer to oversleeping or sleeping late.

A typical reference is this one from the Dorothy L. Sayers mystery Five Red Herrings (1939): “Shall I tell Mrs. McLeod to let you sleep in, as they say? And call you with a couple of aspirins on toast?”

As for the verbal phrase “sleep out,” it originally meant to spend the night in the open air, but later came to mean sleeping away from home. The first OED citation, in an 1852 British report on juvenile crime, refers to an apparently homeless child committed for the offense of “sleeping out.”

The next reference is from the Kipling poem “Danny Deever” (1890): “‘E’s sleepin’ out an’ far to-night,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.” And a 1908 letter by Rupert Brooke says: “I should love to sleep out with nothing but a few extra socks on.”

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