What Is The Meaning of Sleep Tight?
4 min read
Last Modified 20 December 2022 First Added 7 October 2021
Whilst ‘sleep tight’ can be used on its own, ‘sleep tight’ is often added to ‘good night’ to form ‘good night, sleep tight’, to add endearment and fondness to the ‘good night’ phrase.
The ‘tight’ in the phrase refers to being snug, cosy or secure and was likely chosen because it forms an easy rhyme.
As ‘good night’ can be used to say ‘goodbye’ when you are leaving for home and as a gesture for wishing someone a pleasant sleep, it is formal when used on its own.
The addition of ‘sleep tight’ to ‘good night’, decreases its formality hence being used mainly among family members and loved ones. Saying ‘sleep tight’ to someone you don’t know or to someone who is ‘above you’, may get you some strange looks.
The classic explanation behind the phrase ‘sleep tight’ relates to medieval rope-strung beds. These beds, instead of springs, used ropes that needed to be tied tightly under the mattress to keep it securely in place, hence the phrase ‘sleep tight’.
As a passive-aggressive way to kick out guests who had outstayed their welcome, it was common for maids to loosen these strings to make sleep more uncomfortable.
Whilst a neat and somewhat amusing explanation, it turns out this has nothing to do with the phrase ‘sleep tight’ and is, unfortunately, a myth.
The phrase ‘sleep tight’ only first appeared in the mid-18th Century by writer Susan Bradford Eppes in her diary, ‘Through Some Eventful Years’, far after rope-strung beds were popular:
All is ready and we leave as soon as breakfast is over. Goodbye little Diary. ‘Sleep tight and wake bright,’ for I will need you when I return.
However, while the date of the entry is 1866, the actual date of the diary’s publication was 1926, meaning that even this commonly agreed-upon earliest mention is on shakier ground than we might expect.
It’s worth noting that the phrase appears in quotation marks in the original text – this is a useful piece of additional information, indicating a separate source for the phrase.
The origins and meaning of ‘tight’ and its application to ‘sleep tight’ offers some further illumination. The use of ‘tight’ in ‘sleep tight’ to mean sleep well can be traced back to Shakespeare’s use of ‘tight’ to mean stable, secured and soundly.
The use of ‘tight’ to mean ‘still’ or ‘snugly’, as we would recognise it from the phrase, appears in documents from the middle of the 18th Century – generally in reference to military garments or to sails – before being used as a standalone term at the turn of the 19th century in phrases such as ‘sit tight’.
This would all seem to debunk at least one of the common statements on the etymology of the phrase – that it almost certainly has nothing to do with rope-strung beds. It would also appear to confirm that the phrase would have been in general use during the period Susan Bradford Eppes wrote her diary.
With the appearance of quotation marks in the diary entry, and the slow convergence of each individual thread of meaning for the component parts of the phrase, everything seems to suggest that the likely origin of the phrase is in the colloquial language of the early to mid-19th century – probably as a direct descendent of the earlier phrase ‘sit tight’.
As you’d expect, ‘sleep tight’ features in every cultural medium. Sleep Tight was a single by Celine Dion on her 2004 album Miracle and used as the English title of a Spanish psychological thriller featuring a concierge who is intent on making everyone else’s life a misery.
As highlighted above, ‘Good Night’ and ‘Sleep Tight’ make a good pairing; a fact recognised by The Beatles in their hit Good Night – which is one of the few songs by the band that features Ringo Starr as lead vocalist; the song appears on the White Album.