Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite: The Origin of the Rhyme

Good night. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite!’

This familiar rhyme is frequently recited by parents to their children as they prepare for bed.

But where does it come from?

There are various myths surrounding its origin.

The phrase ‘sleep tight’ is thought to refer to 16th and 17th century beds, which were usually mattresses filled with feathers and straw tied to a frame using a lattice of ropes. It was necessary to tighten these ropes frequently to prevent sagging, hence the term ‘sleep tight’.

If the ropes were not tight, the mattress could sag to the floor, making it easier for bed bugs on the ground to reach the mattress.

An alternative theory suggests the phrase refers to tying sleepwear tightly to prevent the bugs from easily reaching the skin at night.

Some historians refute these theories and point to the Oxford English Dictionary, which claims ‘sleep tight’ simply means to ‘sleep soundly’.

Etymologist Barry Popik claims the rhyme actually originated in the USA in the 1860s, and in some versions the biting referred to mosquitoes. One version from the 1860s is ‘Good night, sleep tight, wake up bright in the morning light, to do what’s right, with all your might.’

In a novel called ‘Boscobel’ written in 1881 by Emma Mersereau Newton, a boy says to his parents, ‘Good night, sleep tight; And don’t let the buggers bite.’ And in the 1884 book ‘Boating Trips’ by Henry Parker Fellows, a little girl says ‘Good-night. May you sleep tight, where the bugs don’t bite!’.

The precise phrase ‘Good-night, Sleep tight, Don’t let the bedbugs bite’ first appears in the 1896 book ‘What They Say in New England: A Book of Signs, Sayings, and Superstitions’, and it later appeared in a 1923 text by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The rhyme then became increasingly well known throughout the 21st century, appearing in numerous books and films. So although the true origins of the phrase remain unclear, it has certainly become well established and remains popular to this day.

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