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If I'm off to catch forty winks, how long will I be asleep?

I'm interested to know if there is a specific amount of time associated with a 'wink', or if there's no actual amount of time behind it?

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The expression is "not get a wink of sleep," for what I know. –  kiamlaluno Apr 24 '11 at 23:23
    
Sounds more like a riddle than a question... –  Alenanno Apr 24 '11 at 23:27
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@kiamlaluno: There are many phrases using the word wink. "forty winks" generally means a short sleep, a nap. –  Orbling Apr 25 '11 at 1:31
    
@Orbling Still, it doesn't seem a "real question." How do you quantify how long is a short sleep? –  kiamlaluno Apr 25 '11 at 9:02
    
@kiamlaluno: In that sense it isn't, but the poster is not to know that the phrase does not define an exact time; the answers serve to tell him how odd English idioms are. –  Orbling Apr 25 '11 at 10:01
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4 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

"Forty winks" is just an idiom meaning a nap for a short period of time. From the Wikipedia entry:

To take forty winks is to take a nap for a short period of time (usually not in bed), or to take a short sleep during the day. The term Forty winks is an English idiomatic noun that can be used in the singular or plural. This can be used in sayings such as "Tom had 40 winks during his dinner hour, while Brett was busy at work".

Alternative idiomatic sayings such as could not sleep a wink provide the mental picture of a wink being the shortest type of sleep available and "forty winks" therefore gives an indication of an appropriate short sleep.

A wink is a very short period of time, a moment; also known as "the blink of an eye" (as in "quick as a wink"). Other languages have this expression as well. Cf. German ein Augenblick, etc.

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A wink is much longer than a jiffy and about the same time as a single shake of a lamb's tail.

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I disagree. 'shake of a lamb's tail' > 'jiffy' > 'wink' > 'blink of an eye'. A 'moment' is much longer than all of these. A 'sec' (as in "just a sec" or second; totally unrelated to the actual time measurement of a second), is less than but close to 'jiffy' and much much longer than a real second but probably not longer than 5 minutes. –  Mitch Apr 25 '11 at 0:58
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A jiffy is an official unit of time = 30ps (time light takes to go 1cm) –  mgb Apr 25 '11 at 1:50
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@Mitch: Are you referring to the metric wink or the imperial wink? –  psmears Apr 25 '11 at 8:55
    
@psmears: to ruin the wit, there's a potential serious etymological question here... 'minute' and 'second' (for time) are coined words in English, but 'hour' really does seem to be organic (a real word shoehorned to be scientifically stipulated), lik 'foot' or 'yard'. –  Mitch Apr 25 '11 at 13:53
    
There is also an informal unit of time known as the shake: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shake -- apparently the unit was derived during WWII and specifically related to the phrase "two shakes of a lamb's tail" –  fbrereto Apr 26 '11 at 2:25
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In his final (and incompleted) novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, 1870, Charles Dickens quantified (or had his character Durdles quantify) a wink as a second long. How a nap can be 40 seconds long, I do not know. Perhaps it refers to the actual time it takes a very tired person to fall asleep.

http://books.google.com/books?id=pMcBAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA94&img=1&zoom=3&hl=en&sig=ACfU3U1VkWFOE_BzMhVg_m_9YoPW6BLZCQ&ci=95%2C263%2C896%2C274&edge=0

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According to Wikipedia a blink lasts for 300-400 milliseconds; if we postulate that a one-eyed wink lasts the same amount of time as a two-eyed blink the duration of a "40 winks" nap would be a staggering 12-16 seconds. However, a wink is technically half of a blink so if you're off for one now to sleep off the knowledgeficating effects of this thread you can probably allow yourself a sly seven seconds. Oh go on then, make it eight. Treat yourself. Wink wink.

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