The Meaning Behind Waking Up On The Wrong Side of The Bed
4 min read
Last Modified 19 October 2021 First Added 8 October 2021
The phrase ‘waking up on (or getting out on) the wrong side of the bed’ means to be in a foul mood from the moment of waking. Someone who’s got out of the wrong side of the bed is likely to be irritable or grumpy.
Rather wonderfully, one of the first historic references to waking up or getting out of the wrong side of the bed was in a text titled: Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English, Containing Words from the English Writers Previous to the Ninetheenth Century which are No Longer in Use by antiquarian and writer Thomas Wright in 1857.
As indicated by his description, the phrase does indeed go back further – and is again used in a way to suggest that it’s older still. This time, the text is the 1850 Biographical Memoir of the Late John Musters Esq. by Hugh Bruce Campbell, found in Volume 23 of The Sporting Review, which is an obituary and, at one point, describes the man as follows:
In etymological discussions of the term, however, there is a common claim that it dates back to the Roman era. But many of these relate it to the Latin ‘sinister’ which meant, simply, ‘on the left side’. The left side only began to be used synonymously with ‘evil’ in the 14th century and retained its primary meaning (on the left) well into the 17th century where it can be seen, for example, in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well in Act II Scene I:
[…] you shall find in the regiment of
the Spinii one Captain Spurio, with his cicatrice, an emblem of
war, here on his sinister cheek; it was this very sword
There are numerous tales of Roman and other historical biases against the left side, presumably due to the predominate ‘handedness’ being the right. This in turn led to left-handed children having their left hand tied behind their back at religious schools well into the 20th century! But general trivia aside, there is little indication in recorded documents to back this claim as to the origin of the phrase ‘wrong side of the bed’.
As such – like the Oxford English Dictionary of Idioms – we have to treat the 1801 work by Elizabeth Wright Marvellous Pleasant Love-story as the earliest documented use of a phrase recognisable in its meaning and use:
You have got up on the wrong side, this morning, George.
While it’s impossible to state for certain that the phrase didn’t originate in ancient Rome or Egypt (as some others have suggested), the actual phrase seems to date to the late 18th or early 19th century as an example of, in the words of Thomas Wright, ‘Provincial English’.
Being a fairly long and slightly unwieldy phrase, ‘waking up on the wrong side of the bed’ features in fewer works of popular culture than some idioms, but even so it still appears in the Beastie Boys track Finger Lickin’ Good:
Created a sound at which many were shocked at
I’ve got a million ideas that I ain’t even rocked yet
I’ve got the light bulb flashing at the top of my head
Never wake up on the wrong side of the bed
You’re an idea man, not a yes-man
With a point to make, you’re bound to take a stand
The abbreviated version ‘wrong side of the bed’, however, features in the lyrics of songs from artists as varied as 10CC (Nothing Can Move Me), Procol Harem (Thin End of the Wedge) and Xzibit (Front 2 Back).