Myth #137: “Sleep tight” referred to tightening the ropes on a bed.


Urban legend has it that “sleep tight” referred to tightening up the ropes on the old-fashioned bed, but this is a myth perpetuated by historic house guides and visitors alike. The meaning of “tight” was a little different in the 18th century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of its meanings was “soundly.” Another is “securely.” So “sleep tight” really just meant “Sleep well.”

Think about the expression “sit tight”–it doesn’t have anything to do with tightening the ropes on a chair, does it? 



18 Responses to Myth #137: “Sleep tight” referred to tightening the ropes on a bed.

  1. Do you have any other source for this than that “tight” can mean soundly or securely? And how does it relate to “sit tight”? I have never heard “sit tight” nor understand its relation to sitting securely or soundly. Just the sound of it would make me think it was related to “hold your horses” or sit still or be patient. I can vouch that if your ropes on your bed aren’t tight, you don’t sleep well. Just wonder if there is more proof for your reasoning.

    • Mary Miley says:

      No, historians pretty much defer to the OED, although there is some more information from England at

      As for the “sit tight” reference, I probably shouldn’t have thrown that in, but I meant to show that this other use of the word tight did not mean anything to do with ropes, it meant securely, in other words, sit still.

      • Evelyn Noyoga Zak says:

        Interestingly I just was binge watching a bedroom series by Lucy Worsley on History of the Home the Bedroom. and they reference this very phrase tightening the ropes and also don’t let the bed bugs bite using wormwood sprinkled on the straw “mattress”. Could it be our friends across the pond have it wrong? (or right)

      • Mary Miley says:

        I clicked on your link and enjoyed watching the show. A wonderful British series! At around minute 10, the museum docent told Lucy that “Sleep tight” meant tighten the ropes. I believe they are mistaken, and that it sounds so logical that no one bothered to check with the OED on word origin.

    • Curtis Cook says:

      ‘Sit tight’ was a phrase my mother used when we were children to mean ‘sit in this spot and don’t get up until I tell you you can.’

    • Actually, I’m surprised to learn of someone not being familiar with the idiomatic expression to “just sit tight”, as meaning to “rest securely or be at ease” — or “chill” — as I was to learn back in my comment of August 2014 about “squaring” a room (or anything else, for that matter) to mean to put things in order — to square away your room, closet, garage, business, check book, accounts, etc. “Sleep/sit/hold tight” and “square away” are both expressions I grew with from my childhood and always understood as being as universally understood as “country mile” even though I grew up in the suburbs.

      Stephen P. Herchak
      Charleston Tour Association
      (America’s most historic city and Travel + Leisure’s #1 City in the World)

  2. thinkactlive says:

    Uh, oh I told that to someone a few days ago. I was told it meant to make sure the ropes were tight when I was on a tour of an historical home years ago. Guess I’d better tell my friend it’s an urban legend! Thanks for this blog. It’s really very interesting!

  3. Stephen Herchak says:

    Hi, Mary– loved the bed post (little pun, there) and while I always took it in the sense you mention (sit tight) when I was growing up I began hearing the tight rope version from docents when I was a volunteer at a Colonial home, so thanks for setting that one straight.

    Speaking of which (sort of), it immediately reminded me of another one I heard having to do with Colonial home furnishings — that the rooms were more multipurpose back then than they are now, furniture would be moved from room to room as needed and when a room was not in use would be pushed back against the walls (leaving the center of the room clear) and it is from that moving of chairs/furniture against the sides of the room after using it is where we get the expression and notion of “squaring a room away”.

    Other than the general notion we carry of four corners indicating order and having “everything covered” (going to the four corners of the earth even when it is not rectangular) no other connection jumps to mind for me so my natural inclination of giving the benefit of a doubt to a plausible story wants to believe this one is so.

    Your thoughts?

    Thanks again so much — hope you have a great weekend.

    Stephen Herchak

    • Mary Miley says:

      Hi Stephen! Thanks for the comments.
      You are aware, I’m sure, that the pushing-furniture-against-the-walls story is long established as true. But I’ve never heard the expression “squaring a room away,” so I can’t comment on whether or not it stems from this practice. I think looking that up in the OED is unlikely to help . . . what word would you look up? Room? Square? I tried to look the phrase up in my two slang dictionaries, English Through the Ages and Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, but nothing resembling “square a room” was there. Even checked Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Then I googled the phrase and came up with no hits. Sorry I can’t help.

      • Leita Spears says:

        A slight variation of this phrase that I still use is ” Let me get the room squared away.” meaning, get everything in order, or ready…back in place. I most often say this when I have company coming or a visitor and I need things ready for them.
        Most of my phrases that I have in my vocabulary not by conscious choice came from what I heard growing up. My mother was raised by her grandmother. That grandmother was born in 1881. So we still have absorbed vocabulary going way way back.
        Similarly, my grandfather always referred to a gate as a gap in the fence. I have seen this in colonial writings.
        None of this is particularly helpful to this discussion, it just sparked my mind and memory.

      • jason davis says:

        What i heard growing up was “get your room squared away”

      • Chuck H. says:

        Squaring things away is, I believe, from nautical terminology. When I served in the navy it was quite common to be told to “get this place squared away” or to “get yourself squared away.”

        While I have no proof, I would posit that it may come from something to do with handling sails on the old square rigged ships.

      • Curtis Cook says:

        I think you may find what you’re looking for if you search for ‘everything squared away’. One seemingly relevant response was from italki: “(I believe this has its origins in shipping and the navy: to “square away” a ship meant to fill it with supplies and put everything in storage in a secure way. The best way to do this was to put boxes side-by-side, thus “squaring” them)”

        Edit: I see you, Leita, Jason and Chuck have already come to a similar conclusion. I suspect that ‘squaring (something) away’ is just a regional distinction of ‘(something) squared away’.

    • Curtis Cook says:

      Sorry for putting this as a reply to you, Stephen, but I couldn’t figure out how to start a new comment string.

      We just returned from a trip to Cooperstown, New York where we hit four museums. At Hyde Hall, about eight miles north of Cooperstown on the east side of Lake Otsego, they trotted out the ‘tightening the ropes’ story.

      Hyde Hall was built in four stages from 1817 through 1835 and lived in continuously by the same family until it was abandoned in 1953. It’s worth a side trip if you’re in the area, though not as interesting as the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown. There are fifty rooms and, like Boldt Castle (a three hour drive northwest of it), it has been under continuous renovation since 1973. Also like Boldt, the renovations will never end, as the structure requires repeated refurbishment — in Boldt’s case due to stress from all the visitors, and in the Hall’s case due to repeated water damage that they can’t seem to find the source of.

      • Thanks for this. 50 rooms! Can’t even imagine, or that such a property would simply be abandoned!!

        Very unlikely will ever have the time or money to be in the area given the lack of the latter and overwhelming demands on and commitments of the former, but perhaps when I get a breather I can look it up and read about it now everything in the world is online.

        Thanks again

  4. Dave E. says:

    Words and sayings from history usually have a practical background to them. Therefor to wish someone to sleep well would possibly refer to the bed set up properly, such as having the ropes properly tightened. A simplified dictionary definition often leaves out the historic and practical reason for the saying or term.

    • Rick Schuman says:

      It is not as thought the same expression does not ever have alternate meanings. As time passes, the English language is modified or even misused to suit local use. for instance, does the phrase “at one time” refer to a condition during previous history or everything happening simultaneously?

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