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Does anybody know the etymology of the phrase "sweet dreams"? I tried googling but did not find anything satisfying.

Is this a relatively new phrase of the modern world or has this been in use for some time? I think it's the latter one.

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    Note that it isn't a greeting (as stated in the title). A greeting is used as a hello. "Sweet dreams" is normally said on parting at night and/or as an adjunct to "Good night". – chasly from UK Jul 27 '15 at 23:52
  • It must be very, very old, since my family always said it at going to bed, calling out to others in the house.we are a very, very old family and very conservative in that we preserve traditions and rarely take on new ones. – Mary Freeman Feb 20 '19 at 15:34
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The OED has the interjection as "a farewell to someone going to bed" from the 20th century:

1908 Sears Roebuck Catal. 198/1 Tenor Solos..Good Bye, Sweet Dreams, Good Bye.

But it goes back until at least the 19th and possibly 18th centuries.

John Wolcot, writing under the pseudonym of Peter Pindar, used it in his poem "Orson and Ellen; A Legendary Tale" published in 1801:

I But I will go since tis thy wish My angel fair good night Sweet dreams to thee my only dear Aye dreams of rich delight Sweet dreams unto my friend also With sweetest smiles said site Ah then of ELLEn I must dream With gallantry said he

Also from 1801 in The infernal Quixote (Page 287) by Charles Lucas:

Poor Emily was like one thunderstruck Good night and sweet dreams to my lovely girl was the great mans address as he left the room INFEJJXAL QUIXOTE 287

In the March 1776 of The Universal Magazine was published "The Serenade. A Pastoral Tale. From the German of Gesner", where the shepherd Daphnis watches over his beloved as she sleeps and sings:

Lovely dreams conduct her to the grove where flowers are with the verdure nixed There let the little Loves pursue and play around her as bees about the new blown lose Let one of the lovely groupe settle at her feet loaded with a fragrant apple while another presents her with vermilion and transparent grapes and cithers agitate the flowers with their wings to diffuse about her the most sweet perfumes At the bottom of the grove let the Pa phian God appear but without his arrows or his quiver lest he alarm her timid inno tence Let him be alone adorned with all the charms of his inchanting youth Sweet dreams deign at last to present my image to her Let her fee me languishing at her feet incline my eyes and fay in faultering accents that for love of her I die Never O never yet have I dared to tell it her Ah at that dream may a sigh distend her bosom May she hen blush and smile upon me Why am not I as beautiful as Apollo when he guarded the flocks i Why are not my songs as melodi 122 THE

The same tale appears in 1776's as Idyl XI, "Daphnis" in New Idylles by Gessner translated by W. Hooper. Salomon Gessner was a Swiss painter and poet and first wrote "Daphnis" in 1754.

Dreams had been referred to as sweet much earlier, such as in Francis Bacon's Wisdom of the Ages in 1680 (originally from 1609 in Latin, "Done into English by Sir Arthur Gorges Kt."), and 1709 in The Works of Sir John Suckling: Containing His Poems, Letters and Plays.

  • I've sent these antedatings to the OED. – Hugo Nov 11 '13 at 15:30
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The phrase may have gained currency during the 17th century.

An early example of "Sweet dreams" can be found in the Jacobean play The Witch (1606~1616) by Thomas Middleton

Act 2 Sc 1 [Antonio's house]

"Enter Francisca.

FRANCISCA Good morrow, Gasper.

GASPERO Your hearty wishes, mistress, And your sweet dreams come upon you."

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    I'm impressed! Good research. Middleton also uses the word, sweet or sweetness, no less than 38 times. – Mari-Lou A Nov 11 '13 at 20:34
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    @Mari-LouA Thank you! I have a feeling 'sweet' was fashionable in poetry even earlier, eg. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey "The sweet accord, such sleeps as yet delight" (luminarium.org/renlit/prisoned.htm) or Th. Nashe "Spring, the sweet spring, is the year’s pleasant king" (poetryfoundation.org/poem/174083), though everyday language is of course hard to attest. – Mario Elocio Nov 11 '13 at 21:08
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Written around 900 B.C., Proverbs 3:24 says, "When thou liest down, thou shalt not be afraid: yea, thou shalt lie down, and thy sleep shall be sweet." Referring to a promise of the sweetness of sleep or dreams granted to those that followed God's commands.

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I guess this phrase found it's use when people wanted the person they are wishing a "good night" to have nice (non-horrifying; as in, sweet) dreams and sleep in peace; I presume it just became colloquial in that manner. There isn't any significant history behind this phrase. Also, I've heard this being used since the time I was born! I think it has been in use for a long time.

  • Yes, I agree there isn't any historical data one can find about this phrase. Dictionary.com approximates its origin to 1900, therefore, I'm guessing it's "relatively" new. I just find it weird not to find any references to the origin of a phrase that's used so often. Oh well, somethings are that way. Thanks for the answer and the edit to the question. – Sterex Nov 9 '13 at 16:07
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    ngrams for 'sweet dreams' shows quite a few older usages that sound like a replacement for 'Good night'. – Mitch Nov 9 '13 at 16:38
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    @Mitch: I only looked at the entries prior to 1870, but I didn't see any where standalone "Sweet dreams" could be seen as a "well-wishing" to someone about to go to sleep. But on the other hand, it's not obvious to me that "Goodnight" was used in that way until (relatively) recently. All the older instances I looked at seem to be just "leave-taking" utterances, along the lines of "Goodbye" (or "Good day", "Good evening", etc., on departing rather than meeting). – FumbleFingers Nov 9 '13 at 18:40
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I think the etymology is uncomplicated and fairly self-evident: just wishing someone pleasant dreams as a way of generally wishing that they have a good night's sleep.

According to the Google Ngram Viewer this phrase has been published in books since 1790, peaking in usage at the end of the 19th Century, and making a comeback since 1980.

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