Have you ever come across the expression 40 winks and wondered what it meant? Were you confused as to the significance of winking at someone or blinking that many times in a row? If so, you wouldn’t be alone. Like many of the common phrases discussed here at The Word Counter, 40 winks is an idiom. A very typical idiom, actually, in that the saying doesn’t at all mean what it appears to mean. Read on for the definition of this popular phrase.
What Does 40 Winks Mean?
40 winks means a short sleep, or a nap. Specifically, the saying is most often used to describe a nap taken during the day and not in one’s bed—instead, say, on the couch or in a chair. The implication with the phrase is that a brief slumber will leave you feeling refreshed and recharged. You’ll typically hear or see 40 winks used as part of a longer expression: catch 40 winks or take 40 winks.
Here are some example sentences using the common idiom 40 winks:
- After all the commotion with presents this morning, I could really use 40 winks before Christmas dinner.
- I know you’re tired, Jane, but there’s more studying to do. How about you go and catch 40 winks while we eat dinner and then come back and join the study group.
- We have to leave for the concert in an hour, dad. Promise only 40 winks and then we’ll go? We don’t want to be late.
- As a first-time mom, I never get to sleep the night through. It’s just 40 winks here and 40 winks there. It’s so exhausting!
- I always try to sneak in 40 winks on my lunch break. I’m too tired in the afternoon to get through all my work if I don’t.
The numeral 40 can also be spelled out when writing this expression, as forty winks.
The Origin of the Expression
Although today we primarily think of the word wink as describing the act of shutting one eye briefly to tease or as some kind of signal or as a synonym for blink, it has actually been used to refer to sleep since the 14th century. (Think of the phrase get/not get a wink of sleep. The word hoodwinks, sometimes incorrectly written as hood-winks, comes from this definition.) The number 40 has also been used generally to mean an indefinite, large number for quite some time. Yet, the phrase 40 winks doesn’t appear to have been in use until the 1820s.
It’s possible the expression was first recorded in The Art of Invigorating and Prolonging Life, a self-help guide written by William Kitchiner and published in 1821. In it he writes: “‘A Forty Winks Nap,’ in an horizontal posture, is the best preparative for any extraordinary exertion of either,” with either here referring to a need of energy, from the body or the mind.
However, since he placed the phrase in quotation marks, it may be, and is even likely, he was referencing a saying already in existence. Interestingly, Merriam-Webster dates the first use of 40 winks to 1828.
Though they don’t appear to have anything to do with the origins of the expression, The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, or just the Thirty-Nine Articles, come up in conversation around the phrase. These articles, dating to the 16th century, outlined the doctrines and practices of the Church of England, and were considered a drudge to get through. That led a writer in 1872 to imply that after reading them a person would be likely to take 40 winks, hence the connection to the expression.
40 Winks in Literature
Once the expression entered the lexicon, it became a big hit with many well-known writers. Lewis Carroll used it in his novel Sylvie and Bruno. F. Scott Fitzgerald included it in a short article, aptly titled Gretchen’s Forty Winks, in which the main character’s husband tells her: “Just take forty winks, and when you wake up everything’ll be fine.” And, Ernest Henley and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote it into their play King’s Evidence.
As you now know, 40 winks is an idiom. An idiom is a figurative expression with an intended meaning that, at least typically, can’t be fully understood just by looking at the definitions of the individual words that comprise it. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:
You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.
If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, at first glance and at face value, you’d understand the expression 40 winks to mean 40 blinks or 40 winks at someone, with one eye shut and the other open. Yet, you now know the phrase uses an outdated definition of wink to mean closing one’s eyes for sleep, and also relies on an understanding of 40 to mean a large but undetermined amount, rather than a number equal to four times 10. You now know that 40 winks in fact means a brief sleep.
Discover more idioms here.
Synonyms for 40 Winks
There are a variety of words that can be used for a brief—perhaps light—sleep, including:
Consult a thesaurus for even more synonyms for 40 winks.
The idiomatic expression 40 winks means a short sleep, usually a nap taken during the day and out of one’s bed, instead in a chair or on the sofa, as examples. This type of napping is thought to help one recharge. Although its exact origins are not fully clear, we do know the saying dates to the 1820s, and it has remained a popular phrase since.