Ask Language Log: "sleep in"

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Someone who heard me interviewed on the radio wrote to ask:

Do you know the derivation of "sleeping in"? I know it means sleeping late, but why do people say "sleeping in" instead of "sleeping late"?

Short answer: "sleep in", in the meaning of "sleep late(r than normal)", seems to have developed as an idiom within the past 100 years, apparently borrowed from Scots.  It's common in English for verbs in combination with intransitive prepositions — sometimes called "phrasal verbs" — to develop idiosyncratic uses and meanings, related in some metaphorical or analogical way to the meanings of the verbs and prepositions involved, but not entirely predictable from them.

The Oxford English dictionary puts "sleep in" under sense 1.g. of sleep, with two rather different meanings:

With in: To sleep in the house, or on the premises, where one is employed (contrasted with ‘to sleep out’); also Naut., to remain in one's berth all night; (orig. Sc.) to oversleep; also, to lie in (to lie in 4 at lie v.1 Phrasal verbs), to sleep late.

The entry for sleep in the Dictionary of the Scots Language has, among listed "Combs. and phrs.",

(7) to sleep in, to oversleep (Sc. 1881 A. Mackie Scotticisms 60). Gen.Sc.;

I suppose that the original idea of the "sleeping late" sense is that "in", meaning "in one's house" or "in one's bed", is opposed to "out", meaning "out in the world" or at least "out of bed". In addition to the OED's reference "to lie in", there's the verbal form "to stay in", and the noun "shut-in", with similar meanings of "in one's dwelling". The idea of being "in" rather than "out", associated with sleep, then takes on the extra connotation that one is staying "in" while sleeping during a period of time when one normally would be "out".

As this example illustrates, the existence and meanings of such Verb+IntransitivePreposition combinations in English are at best semi-regular.

Thus the meaning of over in sleep over is not the same as in oversleep, much less in start over, get over,  or turn over. The up of "get up" is not exactly the same as the up of "give up", or the up of "show up". And although there's a regular pattern of completive up in combinations like break up, bust up, carve up, smash up, wreck up, this pattern doesn't extend to demolish up, destroy up, dissect up, fracture up. Similarly, we have wash up, freshen up, mop up, tidy up, etc., but not cleanse up, launder up, disinfect up, sterilize up, (For more about verbal idioms with up, see "A stubborn survival", 4/19/2004.)

Common meanings of verb+in combinations include

to cross a physical boundary into a designated space: break in, come in, go in, run in, walk in, wander in, etc.

to interrupt or join a process: break in (as to a conversation), butt in, chime in, join in, jump in, etc.

to cause something to be added to a designated set: add in, count in, throw in, toss in, etc.

to cause something to enter a desired initial state: break in (as an engine or a pair of shoes), burn in (as a computer chip), etc.

to fail to leave a designated space: stay in, sleep in, etc.

In some cases these are simply productive combinations of the forms and meanings of the words involved. Thus come in, walk in, etc., are paralleled by innumerable phrases with other directional adverbials substituted for "in": come home, walk home, or come to Philadelphia, walk to Philadelphia, etc. But break in (as in what a burglar does) doesn't correspond to *break home; join in doesn't work with other directional phrases substituted for "in", e.g. *join to the conversation. Combinations like "join in" (or "sleep in") are apparently quasi-idiomatic results of drift and analogy in the phrasal lexicon.

The "sleep late" sense of sleep in seems to be one of these quasi-idioms, whose entry into general usage is apparently fairly recent. The OED's citations include three from the 19th century with a clear Scottish connection:

1827   C. I. Johnstone Elizabeth de Bruce I. iii. 56   Ye whiles sleep in on a morning.
1883   W. Aitken Lays of Line 58   A'e mornin' last March, when Rab Black sleepit in.
1888   G. MacDonald Elect Lady 138,   I had to be up early, and I was feared I would sleep-in.

The earliest incompletely-Scottish citations are from 1931:

1931   Amer. Speech 7 20   Sleep in, to sleep late. ‘I'm going to sleep in tomorrow.’
1931   D. L. Sayers Five Red Herrings i. 16   Shall I tell Mrs. McLeod to let you sleep in, as they say? And call you with a couple of aspirins on toast?

The semi-regular metaphorical extension of words for spatial relationships is a linguistic universal, as far as I know — it's certainly been ubiquitous in the history of the Indo-European languages.


  1. Brian said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 8:12 am

    Very timely. A few days ago, I pondered the origins of speed up, slow down, shut up, etc. Thanks.

  2. Carl said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 9:03 am

    I love English's phrasal verbs, and I love coining absurd nonce uses—"freak in" for "don't freak out," "screw under" for "not screw over; treat kindly." The more phrasal verbs the better.

  3. K said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 9:06 am

    In German, the same concept is expressed by the phrase "sleep out" (ausschlafen); "sleep in" (einschlafen) means to fall asleep. Speaking as a German learner (= native speaker corrections are welcome!), this little reversal delighted me to the point that I started telling friends things like "oh, sorry I missed brunch, but I slept out this morning."

  4. Sawney said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 9:08 am

    Further to the Scots connection, there's also a noun, 'bidie-in', meaning a common-law partner who shares your house, from the verb 'bide' (stay) + in. Having a wee sleep-in, or not, might possibly depend on the intensity of the relationship.

  5. Mr Punch said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 9:14 am

    The Sayers book is set in Scotland, so the non-Scottishness of that example is certainly incomplete – at best. I read it as an almost explicit reference to a local idiom.

  6. David L said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 9:21 am

    I know Scottish cuisine can be idiosyncratic, but "aspirins on toast"?

  7. Mike said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 10:28 am

    My favorite example of this has always been that we chop a tree down, then chop it up.

  8. GeorgeW said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 10:39 am

    Then there is 'sleep around' which I think is +female -chaste.

  9. GeorgeW said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 10:42 am

    And, we also have 'sleep with' which does not entail sleeping.

  10. John Baker said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 10:54 am

    Notwithstanding the OED and the Dictionary of the Scots Language definitions, I don't understand "sleep in" to mean the same as "oversleep." The difference is one of volition: When I sleep in, I deliberately choose to sleep late, but when I oversleep, it's because the alarm didn't go off or I didn't hear it.

  11. Ben Hemmens said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 11:06 am

    When a German speaker does the same thing, it's called »ausschlafen«.

  12. Mark Etherton said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 11:08 am

    @ John Baker

    I agree: it's the final sense mentioned by the OED: "also, to lie in […], to sleep late"

  13. Robert Coren said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 11:20 am

    Two corrections/amplifications, suggesting the addition of the same word:

    'sleep around' which I think is +female…

    Not necessarily.

    'sleep with' which does not entail sleeping

    …does not necessarily entail…

  14. Brian Hillcoat said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 11:21 am

    The German for "to sleep in" is "sich verschlafen". "Ausschlafen" means to sleep for a long time and awake refreshed.

  15. Ginger Yellow said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 11:32 am

    Coincidentally (I presume), the noun form "lie-in" is Lynneguist's top nomination for a BrE—>AmE untranslatable this year.

  16. Rob said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 11:40 am

    Language Learner corollary to phrasal verb 'sleep + prep/particle':

    I've known and taught many non-native speakers and English language learners who use "sleep late" or "slept late" to mean "I went to bed (to sleep) late(r than usual)"–as in "Last night I slept late" although this usually comes out as "last night I sleep late". You'll especially notice it when it leads to seemingly illogical statement like "I'm so tired cause I sleep late."

    I've often had to follow their statements like "I like to sleep late" with a clarification question to see if the mean 'go to sleep late' or 'sleep in'.

    Ironically (in the linguistic sense), those who tend to (go to) sleep late also tend to sleep late.

  17. mollymooly said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 11:45 am

    In Ireland:-

    * "Sleep it out" is common for "oversleep". I suppose the "it" in question is the alarm clock, or usual getting-up time, or what-have-you. Not to be confused with "sleep it off".

    * If you deliberately stay in bed you "have a lie-in", you don't simply "lie in". Unrelatedly, a "lying-in hospital" is an old term for a maternity hospital.

    * I would by default think "sleep in" meant "overslept", but it might on occasion mean "have a lie-in".

  18. Charles in Vancouver said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 12:48 pm

    "The semi-regular metaphorical extension of words for spatial relationships is a linguistic universal, as far as I know — it's certainly been ubiquitous in the history of the Indo-European languages."

    Nonetheless, this is not a feature available in a comparable way to all Indo-European languages. French in particular is more resistant to adding direction to verbs. I can add a destination, but some types of directionality just don't work. This results in the "chassé-croisé" translation phenomenon.

    e.g. "Marie swam across the river" -> "Marie a traversé la rivière à la nage" because you can't add "across" to "nager". Instead you pack the spatial relationship into the verb, and if necessary you add the means of acting in that direction.

    So without the ability to add spatial relationships to most verbs, this particular type of extension to a phrasal verb doesn't happen in French. Of course you still get other types of extension, e.g. "s'en vouloir" (to have regrets, feel bad, hate oneself…) that don't immediately make sense from the original verb.

  19. jonathan said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 1:22 pm

    Perhaps the English verb with the most diverse phrasal forms is "fuck": "fuck up", "fuck off", "fuck around". I like how it feels as if it's the preposition that carries the most meaning and the "fuck" is almost adverbial, meaning "in an intensely negative way".

  20. Aaron Toivo said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 2:34 pm

    @jonathan: not an especially impressive list there. You may have missed a couple, but other verbs have more still. Try: to stand in, to stand out, to stand up, to stand down, to stand aside, to stand between, to stand with, to stand around. All of these are phrasal verbs at least in the regard that their meanings are not wholly compositional, though most of the transitive ones actually fail the only syntactic test I know.

    (The test in question is nicely expressable in quasi-poem form:
    I can run up a hill
    Or I can run up a bill
    But if I can run a bill up
    Why can't I *run a hill up

  21. Carl said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 3:36 pm


    Don't forget "under stand"!

  22. Sawney said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 4:14 pm

    Maybe more relevant, Jonathan:
    "fuck in"?

  23. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 4:28 pm

    Aaron T.: do you know the origin of that test? I remember learning those exact same examples for the contrast in an undergraduate syntax class circa 1985, but for all I know it was ancient by then (well, ancient for a discipline barely a few decades old in its then-existing form).

    It's interesting that "he shut up" and "he shut down" can both be used to describe the same event (i.e., "he stopped talking") albeit with different nuances.

  24. David Morris said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 4:38 pm

    I only ever say 'sleep in', and I can't remember hearing 'sleep late' from anyone around me in Australia until I was teaching in Korea, when I assumed that it was a Konglish expression. To me, 'sleep late' means 'go to sleep late'. I also don't say 'oversleep'. (I do have some Scottish ancestry, but also many (most) other parts of the British Isles, and I would be very suprised if anything I say was entirely due to regional British usage.)

    Phrasal verbs crop up in a number of lessons, but there are rarely lessons entirely devoted to them, so I often gloss over them. One difficulty is that some have literal meanings (sit down, stand up, sit up), some have figurative meaning (stand down) and some have both (shut up and shut down). (Interestingly, one can be sitting down and sitting up at the same time, or standing down and standing up.)

  25. Rod Johnson said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 5:49 pm

    J.W. Brewer: I believe the locus classicus is probably Chomsky's discussion of "particle movement" in Syntactic Structures. PM was one of the very first transformations proposed, so I imagine that kind of data set, if not that exact set, has been a staple of syntax classes since the early sixties.

  26. Rod Johnson said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 5:52 pm

    Nicole Dehé maintains a good bibliography on verb-particle constructions here, by the way.

  27. Rubrick said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 7:10 pm

    "Sleep in" may have long ago moved beyond the bounds of its source island, but it's still the case that over there you're far more likely to get knocked up if you sleep in. I hope.

  28. Ray Girvan said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 7:36 pm

    @Brian Hillcoat: The German for "to sleep in" is "sich verschlafen"

    This is interesting, as the literal translation is, more or less, "to besleep yourself".

    Wiktionary has an entry for "besleep" going back to OE beslǣpan. It's based on a tiny number of citations (it isn't in the OED) – but I rather like it.

  29. Just another Peter said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 8:00 pm

    I thought "sleep in" was from something like "sleep into the day"

  30. John said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 8:24 pm

    Something I've noticed over the past few years is the verb, "to bake off", that is, to finish the cooking of something in an oven that has been started on the stove top. The term is used by chefs, cooks, and others in the food racket.

    The meaning is clear enough and somewhat parallel to "cook off", though the latter tends to mean either a contest or a round of ammunition going off due to exposure to heat.

  31. jonathan said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 10:50 pm

    I guess I phrased my idea poorly. All those phrasals using "stand" pretty much refer to some type of standing, or at least where an action involving standing could be an example of the verb. Not every stand-in literally stands where someone else should be, but it's a good representative of the action. But all the phrasals with "fuck" have no interpretation that involves fucking.

    fuck off = leave
    fuck around = goof
    fuck up = err

    That seems different to me.

  32. Matthias Hoefler said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 11:32 pm

    I can't find where else to stick this, so I'm putting it here.

    When are you going to do an analysis of Flula Borg's use of the English language?

    You did Yoda. It's only fair.

  33. John F said,

    December 18, 2012 @ 4:33 am

    I have Ulster-scots ancestry and I didn't know "sleep in" meaning "get up late" was not a universal phrase among native English speakers.

    I think oversleep should mean that you slept longer than you normally would, whereas sleep in should mean getting up after you needed to and not necessarily because you slept longer than normal. Maybe that's why overslept sounds better to use as an excuse for being late.

    Of course, in my GCSE French class, we were told that when the French lie in, they have greasy mornings (a Samedi, j'ai un grasse matin – or something like that).

  34. raempftl said,

    December 18, 2012 @ 4:39 am

    Regarding the German verbs mentionned in previous comments:

    einschlafen = to fall asleep

    ausschlafen = to sleep until one feels completely refreshed; This does not necessarily involve sleeping in. You can use it when getting up at 5 am or after taking a nap in the afternoon as long as you feel completely refreshed afterwards. In this case, the "aus" adds the meaning "until it is finished" (ein Glas Wein austrinken = to empty a glass of wine).

    verschlafen = to oversleep; (There is no "sich".) The "ver" adds the meaning "doing it incorrectly". (sich verhören = to mishear, sich verschreiben = to misspell)

  35. steve, from the internet said,

    December 18, 2012 @ 5:52 am

    There's a difference between lying in and sleeping in, in Scottish vernacular at least: there's an element of volition about lying in, whereas sleeping in is generally due to failing to wake up when planned.

  36. Gaston said,

    December 18, 2012 @ 6:17 am

    In Dutch, uitslapen, literally 'sleep out', does carry a strong connotation of 'sleeping until late in the morning and liking it', unlike – according to raempftl – the German cognate ausschlafen. However, the past participle 'uitgeslapen', used as an adjective, simply means 'fit', 'refreshed', regardless of the number of hours slept, just like ausgeschlafen.

  37. Ben Hemmens said,

    December 18, 2012 @ 6:31 am

    I haven't heard verschlafen for many a long year (except in the figurative sense of not having paid attention to something). But it certainly doesn't cover the positive case where someone stays in bed longer in oder to have a rest. It only means sleeping longer than you should have.

    As someone who has had the experience of trying to teach German speakers English at unholy hours of the morning, I can confirm that their claims to be ausgeschlafen at such times can often be taken with a pinch of salt ;-)

    Steve, lying-in has sometimes been even more different from sleeping in:

  38. Ben Hemmens said,

    December 18, 2012 @ 6:36 am

    Ray Girvan, I think the German prefixes be- and ver- have fairly separate lives. The semantically most equivalent conversion of ver- into an English prefix would be mis- .

  39. Hans Adler said,

    December 18, 2012 @ 2:06 pm

    In Wiktionary I found the obsolete word forsleep, which is the precise cognate of German verschlafen and has roughly the same meaning.

    Regarding the discussion above of the connotations of ausschlafen: Raempftl is correct that it does not *necessarily* imply sleeping *too* long. But everything that Gaston says about Dutch uitslapen and uitgeslapen also applies in German.

    I sort of disagree with the last two comments (by Ben Hemmens). Verschlafen is a perfectly normal word which many Germans use almost on a daily basis and practically all use regularly. Also, while English for- is no longer productive, it may be best to think of it as the best equivalent of German ver-. Both English for- and German ver-, much like their Latin cognate per-, have a very wide (and similar) range of possible meanings, which is much broader and fuzzier than that of English mis-.

  40. Jonathan D said,

    December 18, 2012 @ 5:59 pm

    Robert Coren, when talking of entailment, adding the word necessarily is never necessary.

  41. sashi said,

    December 20, 2012 @ 7:52 am

    I would agree with Jonathan above that the fundamental predicative relationship is most often expressed by the particle in verb-particle combinations.

    Den Dikken's book Particles is interesting reading on this subject. (As I recall the idea is that there is a small-clause relationship… V (SC)

    You're out! (copula) Cf. I found [her out]. I bawled [him out]
    Get [(yourself) out], Put [(you) up] or Shut [(you) up], etc.

    For me, "sleep in" is indeed equivalent to "have a lie-in" and translated "faire la grasse matinée" perfectly. It would seem that the origin of the phrase may be closer to oversleep, but not in the (American) usage I've heard.

  42. Rod Johnson said,

    December 20, 2012 @ 11:09 am

    Nicole Dehé (mentioned above) discusses several different types of analyses in her dissertation: "traditional" (transformational), small clause, extended VP, particles as functional categories, and a grab bag of others. I think it's a highly theory-bound question, and even a clear phenomenological description (such as Mark does in a limited way in the original post) for multiple languages is something we haven't quite achieved yet.

    "Sleep in" has gotten a number of speculative analyses here without a lot of evidence. Here's another one: it derives (conceptually, not syntactically) from sleep into the daytime. It's common to talk about activities continuing into a time periods—classes extend into the next period, people live into a new century, ideas live into the future, we beat back ceaselessly into the past, etc. "The daytime" is kind of obvious, but can't be easily eliminated because into, unlike in or on, doesn't have an intransitive form, thus sleep in is the closest intransitive equivalent.

  43. marie-lucie said,

    December 20, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

    Of course, in my GCSE French class, we were told that when the French lie in, they have greasy mornings (a Samedi, j'ai un grasse matin – or something like that).

    "Samedi, j'ai fait la grasse matinée" (On Saturday, I stayed in bed all morming).
    "Gras/grasse" could mean 'greasy' but more often means 'fat'. I think this must go back to a time where being fat meant being well-fed, therefore idle like "the idle rich". The phrase is not about 'a greasy morning' but 'an idle morning'.

    To me (living in Canada), "to sleep in" involves actually sleeping – perhaps after waking up and deciding to go back to sleep, or simply from not hearing the alarm clock. "Faire la grasse matinée" is deliberate and does not necessarily involve extra time spent sleeping: for instance, waking up at the normal time but spending the morning in bed, perhaps having coffee or breakfast in bed and reading the newspaper.

  44. Mark F. said,

    December 20, 2012 @ 3:39 pm

    "Sleep in" is a part of my (US) dialect and I hadn't realized it had any non-US flavor. "Have a lie-in" was something I learned from Harry Potter books. In my idiolect, sleeping in is generally volitional, while sleeping late can be either. So that's a little different from steve from the internet's description of Scottish usage.

    I had no idea that "sleep late" was an Americanism, as at least some comments suggest.

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