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Sleep: A Fucky Etymology, an Even Fuckier Activity

September 17, 2010

So, every evening, we shut the lights off, prostrate ourselves on a special piece of furniture, and become unconscious for a long period of time.

The word for this activity is sleep. What a fucky-looking English word. Where does it come from? Good question, friend. Let’s consult a dictionary of Indo-European roots. I happen to have one right here beside me in the spot where most people keep their pet, child, or significant other, so it’s no problem.

sleb- To be weak, sleep. Possibly related to sleg [blah blah blah…]. SLEEP, from Old English slaepan, to sleep, and slaep, sleep, from Germanic *slepan, *slepaz.

Basically what this says is that there’s an I-E root that means sleep, and only sleep. Nothing else. Do you know how weird that is? If you have an I-E dictionary at your disposal you can do a quick skim (I bet you $20 that someone will get to this post by Googling “quick skim” today)*** and see that pretty much every single root has given birth to mazillions of English words via gadzillions of intermediary languages. Very very very few I-E roots have led to only one English term. Very few. Most roots are delightfully fertile; the unproductive ones are rare and worthy of suspicion–or, at the very least, curiosity and thought. Just trust me on this if you don’t have your I-E dictionary handy. I would never lie to you, beloved blog audience. Especially about something as important as etymology.

A language reflects and expresses its culture(s). So an isolated root like that says a lot about the people who created it and used (or didn’t use) it. It screams, anachronistically: “Nobody in the past 2000 years has felt that ‘sleep’ is strongly related or even remotely comparable to any other concept or object in the world.”

And if you think about it, that’s true. Sleep really isn’t like anything else. It is a singularly strange, original activity. Sometimes I get so weirded out by the idea of it that I can’t sleep.

We all go out and buy special wicked-expensive soft palettes and then soften them further with sheets and pillows. Every day at a certain time we lie down on these objects and close our eyes, and the brain somehow shuts down certain parts of our selves, creating a sort of temporary, safe version of a coma. And while unconscious, we do this thing called “dreaming,” which Jesus, if you want to see something confusing, look up the history of that word.

We spend a third of our lives sprawled on these “beds,” starring in ridiculous, impossible, disturbing fabrications of our imaginations, oblivious to what’s happening in reality. It makes absolutely no sense, you guys.

My cat is, as usual, passed out on the only chair in the apartment. Cats sleep an average of 18 hours a day, which means there must be a really industrious cat out there that’s only getting 13 hours, because Sappho routinely claims a solid 23. Does the fact that cats spend more time dreaming than awake mean that what we call the dream world is their reality? Why or why not?

I’m in this phase of being disoriented and confused by the most basic features of existence. Tomorrow: a freaked-out examination of names. Or maybe water. Or eyesight. The possibilities are pretty much infinite. (Infinity, that’s another option. Like, what is that?)


***UPDATE: This has now happened. It only took 15 minutes. It was either my friend Jason or some random internet wackjob.

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