An explanation for the English expression "sleeping like (or as sound as) a top" is here. Apparently case closed. It derives from the Italian expression Ei dorme come un topo with topo being wrongly translated as top rather than mouse.

However mice aren't known for sleeping, only dormice are, and the Italian for dormouse appears to be ghiro. The expression Dormire come un ghiro (To sleep like a dormouse) also seems common. The root giro/gyro in English indicates spinning (gyroscope, gyrocopter, autogiro). Is this just a meaningless coincidence? That two words for mouse in Italian (topo and ghiro) are both cognate with spinning things in English? Or is ghiro involved in some way in the mistranslation?

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    As gyro- derives from Greek, and top has Germanic roots, I very much doubt there is any clear connection between the two, and I would indeed assume that this is just a coincidence.
    – oerkelens
    May 12 '14 at 10:22
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    In Italian the expression is 'Dormire come un ghiro' and there is no referene to a mouse in that sense. My impression is that the Enghish idiom has little to do with the italian one.
    – user66974
    May 12 '14 at 10:29
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    'Ei dorme come un topo,' is not Italian, I am sorry!!
    – user66974
    May 12 '14 at 10:40
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    @Josh61: no one is suggesting a phonological connection between top and giro either for English or Italian or anything. The suggestion is between top and topo, and separately gyro and ghiro. And really even there it is just coincidence.
    – Mitch
    May 12 '14 at 11:48
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    In Croatian, there is the phrase "spava kao top", "he sleeps like a top", top meaning "cannon". Of course, we are baffled by that phrase too, since there is not really a context in which cannons can be said to be sleeping deeply. So, I refuse to believe it is a mistranslation from Italian. Two such mistranslations in three unrelated languages (Slavic, Germanic, and Romanic), it's impossible. There is obviously something deeper going on, though I don't know what that is.
    – Veky
    May 12 '14 at 12:57

The phrase sleep like a top appears in The Two Noble Kinsmen by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare, which was first performed in 1613–14, and published in 1634.

There is a possible clue to the etymology in The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, Volume 2 (somewhere between 1580 and the author's death in 1586) By Sir Philip Sidney, in which the phrase like a toppe is used to express the stationary nature of a top, which can only be moved by whipping it.

Griefe onely makes his wretched state to see
(Even like a toppe which nought but whipping moves)

From this, I believe it might be possible that it is the stationary nature of a top, which requires whipping to move, or wake, it that gives rise to the phrase sleep like a top.

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    I think the author is comparing a grief-stricken person's wretchedness with that of a toppe which can only be driven by 'whipping'. Of course to whip a top is the accepted verb meaning to keep it spinning, but here it's being implied that a top is similarly wretched as it's only interaction is being whipped (in the usual sense).
    – user24964
    May 12 '14 at 14:45

Here is a different claim about the origin:

Sleep like a top. When peg-tops and humming-tops are at the acme of their gyration they become so steady and quiet that they do not seem to move. In this state they are said to sleep. Soon they begin to totter, and the tipsy movement increases till they fall. The French say, Dormir comme un sabot, and Mon sabot dort.

Repeated here:

Sleep like a top.Tops, or more correctly spinning-tops', were popular amusements in the days before children had access to toys requiring batteries. The British Museum has on display tops from Egypt, dating from around 1250 BC. When a top is spinning well the precessional effect causes its axis to remain stationary and it can appear to be still, that is, 'sleeping'.

The expression 'sleep like a top' is quite old and is recorded from at least 1693, when it appeared in William Congreve's The Old Batchelour:

It appears the that there is no agreement on the origin of this saying.

  • Unfortunately that's a false etymology.
    – user24964
    May 12 '14 at 10:23
  • Interesting, the source appears to be reliable. Can you give me more information pls.
    – user66974
    May 12 '14 at 10:24
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    @TheMathemagician the answer in the other question doesn't say which etymology is correct. The OED on the other hand says that top is a spinning top: "As the type of a sound sleeper, in reference to the apparent stillness of a spinning top when its axis of rotation is vertical" May 12 '14 at 10:50
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    The etymology provided in that other ELU doesn't appear to be valid. Searches of the Italian corpus on Google's n-gram for the phrases 'dormire come un topo' and 'dorme come un topo' produces zero results between 1600 and 2000. It's the same when substituting-in 'topolino'. The source provided in that other answer is pretty circumspect. I wouldn't consult FHM for etymology ;)
    – 568ml
    May 12 '14 at 11:15
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    @oerkelens: A spinning top, not moving, was indeed said to be sleeping in the 19th century. There is no reason to dismiss this etymology because it's a different kind of sleeping. Consider the expression "he lies like a rug". Would you claim that, because it's clearly a different kind of lying, the obvious etymology is false and the expression comes from a mistranslation of the French word rogue … ? May 12 '14 at 11:42

In Balzac's Pere Goriot (1835) the following appears "voilà Christophe qui ronfle comme une toupie." (There's Christophe snoring like a top). So in this case it seems to be the noise a spinning top makes not its stillness that is important.


The earliest match for "sleep like a top" (or its variants) that I could find in a Google Books search is from Francis Beaumont & John Fletcher, The Coxcomb (circa 1608–1610):

Valerio. When they [the Watch of the city] take a Thief, I'll take Ostend again; the Whoresons drink Opium in their Ale, and then they sleep like Tops: as for their Bills, they only serve to reach down Bacon to make Rashers on; now let me know whom I have done this Courtesie to, that I may thank my early rising for it?

In a note attached to this passage from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (circa 1601–1602)—

Sir Toby. With drinking healths to my Neece: Ile drinke to her as long as there is a passage in my throat, & drinke in Illyria: he's a Coward and a Coystrill that will not drinke to my Neece. till his braines turn o'th toe, like a parish top.

—Samuel Johnson & George Steevens, Supplement to the Editions of Shakspeare's Plays (1778) syas this:

To sleep like a town-top," is a proverbial expression. A top is said to sleep, when it turns round with great velocity, and makes a smooth humming noise.

Robert Nares, A Glossary; or, Collection of Words, Phraes, Names, and Allusions to Customs, Proverbs, &c. Which Have Been Thought to Require Illustration, in the Works of English Authors, Particularly Shakespeare, and His Contmporaries (1822) includes this further note by Steevens regarding "the parish top" (which Nares defines as "A top bought for public exercise in a parish"):

A large top was formerly kept in every village, to be whipped in frosty weather, that the peasants may be kept warm by exercise, and out of mischief, while they could not work.

Yet another set of notes to Twelfth Night, this one from 1857, cites further early instances of sleeping like the town-top:

"Thinking it had power to keep, town-top like, itselfe asleepe," verses pref. to Strong's Joanereidos, 1645. "The people will not, like a town-top, fall asleep with scourging," Rebellion of Naples, 1649, p. 10.

William Hazlitt, English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases Collected from the Most Authentic Sources (1882/1906) has this relevant entry:

To sleep like a town-top. An allusion to the top, which was formerly purchased in towns and parishes for public use, and from its size, when spun, was apt to sleep unusually long.

These early references and glosses suggest several things that may have helped make "sleep like a top" proverbial. First, a properly whipped top's tendency to stay spinning in place for an extended period of time, while making a smooth humming sound, was termed sleep. Second, the unusually large size of town tops increased their tendency to spin in place (that is, sleep) for a long time. And third, the fact that town tops could sleep despite being repeatedly whipped (traditionally, with thongs made of dried eel skin) may have suggested a remarkable ability to sleep soundly.

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