Fast Asleep and Wide Awake


On Translation

But shouldn’t that be the other way around?


A. Rötting, In the Morning, 1840.

Like Thomas Wyatt, who can’t quite let go, I can’t quite let go of that Wyatt poem about what she hath deserved. He says in it that love was not just a dream: “It was no dream, I lay broad waking.” The last two words are an obvious yet pleasantly unfamiliar double-synonym for wide awake.

But what’s so wide about it?

To see the link between alertness and vast side-to-side extent—and why we’re also said to be speedy asleep—the place to start is with awake. The “a-” is a weakened form of the preposition on or in, by the same verbal laziness that turned one into the article an, and then before consonants into a, pronounced “uh.” To go on board or on shore, to be in bed or on a slant, is to be aboard, ashore, abed, aslant, not to mention astern, abreast, ahead (originally nautical as well), afoot, aloof (on the luff side, to windward, steering clear), far afield, run aground. We don’t think of them as contractions of preposition + noun anymore, but many of our location and direction words have this form: afar, amid, atop, athwart, askew, awry, gone astray, and less obviously across, away, apart, around, aside, taken aback.

The same thing happened to time phrases. There’s a-nights and a-days, surviving in nowadays; in five dollars a day or twice a week, it looks like the “in” has been dropped from twice in a week, but actually it’s the article that disappeared. And sometimes these forms preserve old etymologies: aloft (“in the air”—German Luft), among (“in the crowd”—German Menge). Bonus points if you can spot the prepositional phrases in akin, anew, amiss, anon, aghast, agog.

Finally, “a-” meant in as in “in a state of” (asleep, awake, alive or “in life”—the f and v wavered, which is why we have the word lives). The second part of the “a-” word was always a noun, even where it seems not to be, such as in afloat or adrift (“in a drift,” “on float”: float was originally a noun for the state of floating, like a fleet). Since all these nouns also look like verbs, though, the pattern was falsely extended to any verb, which is why we can now be atremble, aquiver, aflutter, awash, abloom, ablaze, aflame, aglow.

Wake, too, was a noun, meaning “awakeness”—Wyatt uses the noun waking. (He didn’t lay broadly waking up: he lay awake, in awakeness, just as “every waking hour” does not mean every hour that wakes up.) Add a verb of motion to the “a-” noun forms with “-ing” and you get go a-begging, set the bells a-ringing, a-hunting we will go. Thoreau called Time “the stream I go a-fishing in” and mentions going a-strawberrying and a-huckleberrying in the woods, but he was just about the last person who could get away with it: the construction is too olde fashion’d now. (A-tweeting we will go? A-refinancing?)

The question remains: Why “wide” awake? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, wide awake is a relatively recent term, defined as “awake with the eyes wide open; fully awake,” and going back only to Shelley in 1818. That must be wrong. Wyatt’s “broad waking” has Shelley beat by three centuries. Wide also meant “extensive, inclusive, or broad in scope”—“wide fame” is in Milton—so wide awake means “deeply, fully in the waking state,” nothing to do with eyes open wide. The dictionary lists nothing under broad waking, but broad daylight, equally nonspatial, goes back to the fourteenth century, and far and wide, in the sense “affecting many things,” goes back to Beowulf. The lovely term far nights, with its obsolete genitive, meaning “late in the night,” goes back to Wyatt’s time, and far days even farther.

“Fast asleep” is easier to make sense of than “wide awake.” The original meaning of fast is “firmly fixed, immobile”—fastened with a fastener, held fast, color-fast, steadfast, a fast friend. As an adverb, fast meant doing something steadily, earnestly, tenaciously. We are firmly asleep far nights, fully awake far days. To “sleep fast” goes back to 1200; today we say “sleep tight.” The meaning “quick” or “speedy” for fast came later, apparently as an offshoot of “running fast,” i.e., “running hard.” Work hard, play hard; sleep fast, run fast. It seems that the thing a person had to do most tenaciously a thousand years ago was run away, and so fast turned into its opposite. To be fast asleep is to be soundly in sleep, sound asleep—hard and fast, safe and sound. “Steady asleep” and “quick awake” may seem to make more sense, but they just don’t sing with the music of English.

 Damion Searls, the Daily’s language columnist, is a translator from German, French, Norwegian, and Dutch.