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KA WORDCAST: Idioms and Phrasal Verbs
Lesson Six : AS I LAY ME DOWN TO SLEEP
As I Lay Me Down to Sleep Sophie B. Hawkins
In this new season, we have been looking at important idioms, phrasal verbs, and other expressions that “come up” all the time in everyday British and American English. And we’ve shown you how the phrases are used so you can put them to use in your own writing and conversation.
If you’ve been listening to our previous Idioms and Phrasal Verbs Wordcasts, you already know what idioms and phrasal verbs are. But for those of you tuning in for the first time, here’s a quick “make-up” lesson to get you “caught up.”
An idiom is a combination of words that has a figurative, that is, a metaphorical or symbolic, meaning separate from its literal or real meaning, which usually cannot be understood just by looking at it: “to bark up the wrong tree,” “when pigs fly,” and “hit the books” are fun examples we’ve examined so far. Here’s another example of an idiomatic phrase that probably looks and sounds very strange to you: “hit the sack.”
As you’ve no doubt guessed, to “hit the sack” doesn’t mean to literally hit or strike a sack, unless, of course, you’re a boxer and the only handy punching bag is a 50-kilogram sack of rice. No, when a friend says, “I’m exhausted. I’m going to HIT THE SACK,” he just means that he is going to bed. The origin of this somewhat slangy phrase is not hard to figure out. In the days before memory foam and pocket-sprung mattresses were “all the rage,” mattresses (or “sacks”) were stuffed with feathers, if you were royalty, or, if you were a “commoner,” straw and hay, which is why we sometimes say “HIT THE HAY” to mean the same thing as HIT THE SACK. Turn in, retire, call it a night, and get some shut-eye are close equivalents. Here are a couple of more examples:
I’ve got a busy day tomorrow, so I think I’ll HIT THE SACK early.
Leigh: What time do you need to be at the airport tomorrow morning?
Michael: No later than five, so I’m going to HIT THE HAY right after dinner and try to get a decent night’s sleep.
A phrasal verb, on the other hand, is an idiomatic phrase made up of a verb and another element such as a particle, preposition, or combination of both. In our previous lessons, we’ve stressed how important it is to use the correct combination of verb and other element, and we’ve looked at several examples where not doing so can lead to trouble. “Stay up” and “stay over” are two more cases in point. “Stay up” simply means to go to bed at a later time than usual:
Lori only allows her two teenaged children to STAY UP past ten o’clock on Friday and Saturday nights.
“Stay over,” on the other had, means to spend the night with someone and has subtle connotations.
Aya: It’s getting late. Do you want to STAY OVER?
Jack: Not tonight. I’d better be going. But thanks for a lovely evening.
Because of these subtle differences in meaning, phrasal verbs, like idiomatic phrases, must be learned. You can’t usually “figure out” what an idiom means just by looking at it (though its context might help to “give it away”).
Last week, we examined twelve idiomatic phrases and phrasal verbs having to do with learning and school. Today, as our opening song “As I Lay Me Down to Sleep” by Sophie B. Hawkins suggests, we will look at thirteen useful phrases about something that is vital to our health, but that we never seem to get enough of: SLEEP. This lesson is available to download in PDF format. There is also an exercise sheet with a “pre-test” exercise that you can download from the website to test your knowledge before the lesson begins. Then, after the podcast, you can check to see how well you did and how much you have learned. We’re sure that you’ve heard it many times before, but it’s always worth repeating: diligently “cracking the books” and constantly “looking over” what you’ve learned are the keys to improving your English.
1. SLEEP IN
In the opening, we learned that to STAY UP means to go to bed at a later time than usual. The opposite of to STAY UP is to SLEEP IN, which means to stay in bed until later than usual—like on Saturday and Sunday mornings. (People in the U.K. often say to HAVE A LIE-IN to mean the same thing.)
Elliot: Boy, am I tired. It’s been a stressful week at work.
Jane: Well, why don’t you go to bed early and SLEEP IN tomorrow morning? I’ll take the kids to soccer practice.
Doctor Aziz, our teenage daughter often SLEEPS IN until noon or even later on the weekends. Is this normal, or should we be concerned?
Angela: When was the last time you SLEPT IN?
Merida: Not since Tyler was born, that’s for sure. He gets me up at five every morning.
The weather forecast calls for heavy rain, so I think I’ll skip my morning run tomorrow and HAVE A LIE-IN instead.
Be careful not to confuse SLEEP IN with OVERSLEEP. SLEEPING IN is usually done intentionally—you want to catch up on some sleep you may have missed, so you stay in bed well past your normal wake-up time. It’s a real pleasure and luxury. But when you OVERSLEEP, you don’t do it on purpose. It’s an accident, a mistake. You sleep longer than you mean to. Perhaps your alarm clock doesn’t go off, or you forget to set it; or maybe it goes off but you just turn over and go back to sleep! As a consequence, you are late for school or work, or miss an important appointment. The following examples should help you “sort out” the difference:
I SLEPT IN until almost noon today, and I feel great.
Trent OVERSLEPT again this morning and missed the school bus for the third time this week.
2. DOZE OFF/DRIFT OFF
DOZE OFF and DRIFT OFF both mean to go to sleep, but with a subtle difference. When you DOZE OFF, you fall asleep while doing another activity such as watching TV or listening to music or listening to a (boring!) lecture. To drop off, nod off, catnap, and (more informally) have a snooze are similar expressions. Look at these examples:
Stacey: You DOZED OFF on the couch again and missed half the movie.
Darren: Sorry. Don’t tell me what happened. I’ll finish watching it tomorrow.
Professor Houlihan’s lecture was interesting, but the lecture hall was so warm and comfortable that I couldn’t help DOZING OFF.
Here’s a scary thought. According to BBC, the National Sleep Foundation estimates that 80,000 drivers DOZE OFF at the wheel for 10 to 20 seconds or more, each and every day!
As we said, to DRIFT OFF (to sleep) is a little different. It means to fall asleep gradually, usually in bed.
Robert: Are the boys still awake?
Claribel: No, they finally DRIFTED OFF about ten minutes ago. They were both wound up from their birthday party.
According to sleep therapists, making sure you are lying in a horizontal position will help you DRIFT OFF to sleep more naturally than propping yourself up on pillows.
I find it much harder to DRIFT OFF to sleep when my iPad and mobile phone are within reach, so I seldom take them into the bedroom with me.
3. SLEEP THROUGH (something)
When you SLEEP THROUGH something—a loud noise, say, or an earthquake, or a thunderstorm—it doesn’t wake you up.
Ron: That was quite a windstorm we had last night. The wind howled and the windows rattled all night.
Joanne: I can’t believe I SLEPT THROUGH it. I didn’t hear a thing.
Mr. Edwards, this is Jim Duncan. I’m afraid I SLEPT THROUGH my alarm clock again. I’ll get to the office as quickly as I can.
Kana is a very deep sleeper. We had a pretty big earthquake recently, and she SLEPT right THROUGH it.
I dozed off on the train and SLEPT THROUGH my stop.
Very small babies, as everyone knows, usually wake up in the middle of the night wanting to be fed, sometimes two or three times. But when they reach a certain age, they start to SLEEP THROUGH THE NIGHT without waking—much to their parents’ relief.
Tim: Carlton’s almost one now. Is he SLEEPING THROUGH THE NIGHT yet?
Jackie: Unfortunately, no. He still wakes up for a 2 A.M. feed.
Now that Phoebe is SLEEPING THROUGH THE NIGHT, I’m finally getting a full night’s sleep every night and have a lot more energy during the day.
4. SLEEP LIKE A BABY/LOG/ROCK
Babies may wake up a lot and demand to be fed, but when they sleep, they sleep very deeply. That’s where the expression to SLEEP LIKE A BABY comes from. It just means to sleep soundly and peacefully. You can also say SLEEP LIKE A LOG or SLEEP LIKE A ROCK.
Rod: How did you sleep last night?
Christine: I took a mild sleeping pill and SLEPT LIKE A BABY.
A structured relaxation program, such as daily meditation and yoga, can help you SLEEP LIKE A BABY.
After completing her first half-marathon yesterday afternoon, Christine went to bed early and SLEPT LIKE A LOG all night.
Whenever I have trouble sleeping, a warm cup of milk with just a pinch of sugar helps me SLEEP LIKE A ROCK.
And just for the record, to SLEEP TIGHT also means to SLEEP LIKE A BABY. The phrase is almost always used by parents when they tuck their small children into bed at night.
Good night, my little angel. SLEEP TIGHT.
5. FAST ASLEEP
The phrase to be FAST ASLEEP, which means to be in a state of deep sleep, has an interesting etymological background. Here, “FAST” is not synonymous with “quickly” or “swiftly,” as in fast runner or fast worker. More than a thousand years ago, “FAST” was a descriptive word that meant “steady,” “firmly,” or “in place.” Today, this usage survives in words such as “steadfast,” which means determined or devoted, and “colorfast,” an adjective that describes fabrics that don’t run or fade when you wash them. Sound asleep, out like a light, and (very informally) dead to the world are other common ways to say FAST ASLEEP.
It was the middle of the night. I was FAST ASLEEP. The doorbell rang, and it took me a few moments to get myself oriented. But when I went down to answer it, there was no one there.
Coryn: Should we wake Lauren and tell her we’re leaving?
Mark: No, she’s FAST ASLEEP. Let’s just leave her a note.
Have you seen the YouTube video of the little girl who is FAST ASLEEP in her car seat and then her favorite song, “Ganman Style,” comes on the radio? Her eyes pop open and she grins and starts to dance. It’s hilarious!
6. SLEEP ON (something)
Literally, to SLEEP ON something means to sleep while reclining or lying down on a bed, say, or a couch, as in:
Alice: You’re welcome to stay the night, if you don’t mind SLEEPING ON the sofa.
Josh: Thank you. Just the one night, I promise. I’ll find a hotel tomorrow.
According to a survey conducted in 2011, these days only about 40% of Japanese young people SLEEP ON traditional Japanese-style futons.
But to SLEEP ON (something) also has a very useful idiomatic or figurative meaning. Say you have a big decision to make or problem to solve and want to be very sure you do it right. So you SLEEP ON it, that is, you postpone the decision and give yourself more time to think it over carefully—as if the solution might come to you in a dream while you are fast asleep. This usage was first recorded in 1519 in the state papers of King Henry VIII—“His grace said that he would sleep and dream upon the matter.” To ponder, reflect on, muse on, mull over, and contemplate are similar words and expressions.
The apartment is beautiful and I’d love to live here. But it’s a bit far from my office, and I’d have to commute almost an hour by train. Can I SLEEP ON it and give you my answer tomorrow?
Matthew: Thank you for offering the position to me, Mrs. Harris, but I’m not sure. It would
mean a transfer, and my family and I really like it here in Christchurch.
Mrs. Harris: Well, why don’t you SLEEP ON it over the weekend, Matthew, and get back to me
The mayor has received your parks proposal and has read through it carefully. He’s going to SLEEP ON it for a few days and make his decision by Friday at the latest.
7. SLEEP (something) OFF
To SLEEP something OFF means to continue sleeping until something such as medicine, a headache, or alcohol stops having an effect on you. The phrase is often used as SLEEP IT OFF. Sober up and recover are two close equivalents.
Eli is at home SLEEPING OFF the effects of the anesthetics he was given before he had his wisdom teeth pulled.
Tana: I have a terrible headache, and I can’t concentrate on my work.
Christian: You probably just need to lie down for a while and SLEEP IT OFF.
Hayden: Where’s Spencer? He was here just a moment ago.
Martha: He drank too much wine, so Gemma took him home to SLEEP IT OFF.
Get this. Comedian George Lopez was arrested for public intoxication after falling asleep on the floor of a casino in Canada. When he was asked about the incident, he just said that he had had one drink too many and was “SLEEPING IT OFF.”
8. LOSE SLEEP OVER (someone or something)
To LOSE SLEEP OVER someone or something means to worry excessively about that person or thing—sometimes so much so that you literally can’t sleep. To be concerned, be anxious, be or get worked up, fret, and get or be stressed out are close equivalents. Note that this expression is often used as advice to mean “Don’t worry so much” or “Take it easy.”
Some anxious parents are LOSING SLEEP OVER whether their child will get a place at the local primary school, but there is nothing they can do about until admissions letters go out at the end of May.
Shawna: I just realized that I used “flaunt” when I should have used “flout” in my creative-writing essay.
Cameron: It’s a common error—nothing to LOSE SLEEP OVER. Just tell Professor Paulsen about it, and I’m sure she’ll let you change it.
9. PUT someone TO SLEEP
To PUT someone or something TO SLEEP has several literal meanings: 1) to use drugs or anesthesia to cause some person or animal to become unconscious, and 2) to humanely kill an animal that is suffering from an injury or illness. Synonyms for 1) include to drug and anesthetize. Synonyms for 2) include put down, put (it) out of (its) misery, and euthanize. Here are a couple of examples.
Patient: I’m really nervous, Doctor. Will the operation hurt?
Doctor: This injection will PUT you TO SLEEP so you won’t feel a thing.
It was a difficult decision, but we, as a family, agreed that it was time we PUT our faithful old dog Felix TO SLEEP.
The terrorists PUT Dr. Watson TO SLEEP by injecting some powerful drug into his neck. When he woke up, he was bound and gagged and lying on the ground in St. James Park.
To PUT someone TO SLEEP can also simply mean to help someone fall asleep, as in:
The sound of her mother’s soothing voice as she reads a bedtime story always PUTS little Katy TO SLEEP almost instantly.
But to PUT TO SLEEP has a very useful idiomatic meaning as well. Something or someone that PUTS you to SLEEP really bores you. Bore to death and bore to tears are close equivalents.
I tried reading one of Nicholas Sparks’ “romance” novels, but it PUT me TO SLEEP about ten pages in. I like stories with a little more suspense and intrigue.
Abigail: How was the movie you went to see last night?
Gary: A big yawn. It literally PUT me TO SLEEP. Don’t waste your money on it.
I don’t mind Cora’s company, but she sometimes PUTS me TO SLEEP, especially when she goes off on a tangent about her horse Atticus.
10. DO something IN ONE’S SLEEP
If you can DO (or make or recite) something IN YOUR SLEEP, it means that you can do it very easily, usually because you have done it so many times before and have become very good at it. It means that you can do it automatically, without thinking about it, with little or no effort—that it’s a cinch, or a breeze, or as easy as ABC.
Lien Kui has made so many pot-stickers over the past few years that she could probably MAKE them IN HER SLEEP.
Aidan: I’m not sure if I’m ready for my math test tomorrow.
Mom: We’ve been over the times tables a thousand times, Aidan. You should be able to RECITE them IN your SLEEP by now.
I’ve seen the movie Grease at least a hundred times. I can practically SING all the songs IN MY SLEEP.
11. LET SLEEPING DOGS LIE
LET SLEEPING DOGS LIE is technically a proverb, not an idiom. But the expression often comes up on the news or in TV programs, films, etc., so it is a good one to know. Simply put, it means to leave alone, to not bother, to not interfere. Let’s say there’s a situation or condition that is not causing any real trouble right now, but could become a problem if you interfere with it. (Imagine a dog sleeping soundly that bites you when you wake it up!) So you decide not to do anything about the situation—to let the “sleeping dog” situation lie. The expression has appeared in literary works since the 14th century, but some linguists believe that it originated in the Christian Bible, written millennia earlier. Some similar expressions of warning include “Don’t get involved,” Don’t meddle,” “Ignore it,” “Just leave (it) well enough alone,” “Mind your own business,” “Don’t poke your nose into other people’s business,” and “Just let it be.”
Megan: Do you think I should apologize for coming in late this morning?
Clinton: LET SLEEPING DOGS LIE, Megan. If Mr. Harold hasn’t said anything to you by now, he probably won’t.
Shannon: Do Mom and Dad know you paid more than $300 for those sneakers?
Anthony: No, and let’s LET SLEEPING DOGS LIE. Besides, it’s my money. I earned it, and I can spend it as I want.
After careful deliberation with his cabinet, the president decided to LET SLEEPING DOGS LIE and to let the two countries solve their dispute without outside interference.
12. SLEEPING GIANT
A SLEEPING GIANT is a relatively new idiom that has been used in the media since about the 1970s. It is a specialized term that refers to a nation that has great potential but as yet unrealized military or economic power, or to a market that has not yet been fully tapped or exploited. (The phrase DO NOT WAKE A SLEEPING GIANT has a similar meaning to LET SLEEPING DOGS LIE. We use it to tell someone to not disturb, annoy, or provoke someone powerful who is not currently bothering you, because, if you do, it could lead to trouble.)
Namibia has many valuable natural resources and has often been considered a SLEEPING GIANT by experts on Sub-Saharan Africa.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, which triggered the Pacific War between the United States and Japan, Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto stated, “I am afraid we have awakened a SLEEPING GIANT.”
We can’t really call our last “sleep” term an idiom, but it is in a way idiomatic since you can’t tell what it means just by looking at it. A SLEEPER is a book, movie, play, sports team or star that becomes surprisingly, unexpectedly successful or popular. It is used both as a noun and adjective, as in these examples:
The Seattle Mariners almost always have a losing season, but this year I think they will emerge as a SLEEPER and make it to the playoffs—maybe even to the World Series.
Perhaps the biggest SLEEPER of the year was “12 Years a Slave,” a film that despite its disturbingly brutal subject matter became a box-office hit and went on to win an Academy Award for Best Picture.
Now that you have a good understanding of the thirteen key phrases we have examined today, you can go back and check out your score on the “pre-test” exercise (we’ve provided answer sheets). How did you do?
We’ll be back again next week with lots more useful phrasal verbs for you to study and get to know.