Word Nerd Wednesday – Forty Winks


Greetings, word nerds! This week’s Word Nerd Wednesday post is inspired by a poem by Shel Silverstein. I don’t know whether you know of his various children’s books, but Runny Babbit is a popular one in our household, all the funnier because it uses so many spoonerisms. And to share a bit of the fun, I’m going to share Runny and the Worty Finks with you.

Runny Babbit, he lay down
To bleep upon his sed.
He said, “I’ll just catch worty finks—
I’m feeling dearly nead.”
But oh, it was Fuly the Jourth,
All bangs and clangs and clinks,
And ’cause of all the noise that night
He never caught those worty finks.


This led one of my daughters to ask, “Why do we say forty winks?” (I wonder where she gets that inquisitive nature from? 😉 )

So Elizabeth, this post is for you! ❤

First of all, what does it mean?

Forty winks: a nap or brief sleep, especially one taken during the day or while not in bed.

Now that that’s established, two questions naturally arise: Why forty, and why winks? We’ll start with the latter question, because it’s easier to answer.

Although our current use of the word wink is almost solely associated with one eye rather than both, historically, it has had a broader application. It actually comes from a mix of Old/Middle English (wincian/winken) which means “to blink, close one’s eyes quickly, to make a sign.” It has also been used in the sense of “sleep” since the late 14th Century. For example, Shakespeare uses it to mean sleep in Sonnet 43:

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright are bright in dark directed.

We also use wink in this sense when we say, “I didn’t get a wink of sleep last night.” In other words, I didn’t even get the smallest amount of sleep it might have been possible to get.

Which leads us to “Why forty?” This is much less certain, and I’ve come across various explanations that try to ascertain just how long forty winks actually is, but very few that suggest why the number forty was chosen.

The most likely option from my short research can be found in this post at WordHistories.net. The number forty has long been used as an indefinite term for a large number, something that actually arises, rightly or wrongly, from Scripture. The number forty occurs many times in the Bible (Moses was forty days on Mount Sinai, the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years, it rained for forty days in the flood, Elijah was fed by forty crows, etc), which has led many to believe that this use is not literal but merely indicative of an undefined but somewhat lengthy period of time. Regardless of whether this interpretation is correct, the word forty has been used in this context for many centuries, and it would seem logical that it’s also behind the use of forty in the phrase forty winks.

So there you go. But before I sign off, for those of you who have been eagerly awaiting the answer to last week’s edition of What Do You Think It Means, the answer was (c). Orectic is to do with desire or appetite. It’s most often used in a medical/scientific sense. For example, an orectic response is one that shows appetite or desire. Well done, Kathy, for picking the right answer, and thank you to everyone who made a guess!

Have a great Wednesday!

About Fiction Aficionado

Homeschooling mum, word lover, reader extraordinaire, and follower of Christ
This entry was posted in Logophilia, Word Nerd Wednesday and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Word Nerd Wednesday – Forty Winks

  1. Pingback: Weekend Book Buzz – 15/16 September 2018 | Fiction Aficionado

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