Old 03-04-2005, 10:14 AM
Join Date: Feb 2005
Location: Cambridge, UK
Posts: 524
Etymology of 40 Winks

I'd be amazed if this haven't already been covered, but I've failed to find it in the search engine.

Does anyone know where the phrase "40 winks", meaning sleep, or a nap, originates? Why 40, and not 187? How long is 40 winks?

I assume 20 blinks would be equivalent?
Old 03-04-2005, 10:18 AM
Join Date: Dec 1999
Location: Grits Country
Posts: 3,842
I always thought 40 winks meant 40 minutes. A 40-minute nap.

Where the phrase originates I have no clue.
Old 03-04-2005, 10:34 AM
Join Date: Oct 1999
Posts: 24,935
You never heard the poem?

"Lizzy Borden took some minks,
and gave her mother 40 winks."

Seriously, while I can't vouch for its accuracy, this trivia page gives a reason:


But the phrase 40 winks has a specific rather than general origin. It comes from an 1872 issue of Punch, the British humor magazine. Punch referred to the Thirty-nine Articles of faith of the Church of England, joking that actually reading through them would induce 40 winks. Call it a yawning gap between conscience and consciousness.
Anyone have some really old copies of Punch around?
Old 03-04-2005, 11:08 AM
Charter Member
Join Date: Mar 2002
Location: NY but not NYC
Posts: 29,367
Punch was using a phrase already in common currency. This phrase page has an earlier citation and a better explanation.
The novelist George Eliot wrote in 1828 of "having 'forty winks' on the sofa in the library". It's the first known use in print. This passage seems to sum up thoughts about its origin: Forty used to be not only a precise number but also an indefinite term for a large number. There are frequent biblical references to 'forty days', which means no more than 'for a long time', and because of this frequency the number 40 came to have an almost sacrosanct quality. It is probably this sense, jocularly applied, that lies behind 'forty winks', a wink itself being a short spell of sleep. ("Wink" has been used to denote a short sleep since the 14th century. When you think about it, you do shut an eye when you wink, but only one. Why not "blink" for a short sleep, and "forty blinks"? It's a curious language!)
Old 03-04-2005, 11:09 AM
Join Date: Jan 2001
Location: SLC, USA
Posts: 4,078
That quote from Punch magazine leads me to think that the term "40 winks" was already in common use at the time.
Old 03-04-2005, 04:25 PM
Join Date: Oct 2003
Location: Minneapolis, MN
Posts: 1,388
I took a Bible as literature course way back when, and among the many interesting topics discussed was the number 40 in Hebrew storytelling. According to the instructor, who was a very well-versed person and read Hebrew fluently, 40 was often used in narratives to indicate "a lot" as opposed to a specific number as such. Thus the rain for 40 days and 40 nights, wandering in the desert for 40 years, etc.

Now to the conjecture part (for which I apologize -- conjecture is a bad way to answer a GQ), I expect that 40 winks harkens back to this older tradition.

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