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?

  • The expression is "not get a wink of sleep," for what I know.
    – avpaderno
    Commented Apr 24, 2011 at 23:23
  • 1
    @kiamlaluno: There are many phrases using the word wink. "forty winks" generally means a short sleep, a nap.
    – Orbling
    Commented Apr 25, 2011 at 1:31
  • @Orbling Still, it doesn't seem a "real question." How do you quantify how long is a short sleep?
    – avpaderno
    Commented Apr 25, 2011 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
    Commented Apr 25, 2011 at 10:01
  • "She can bake a cherry pie // quick as a cat can wink an eye." Commented Dec 10, 2011 at 16:15

6 Answers 6


"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.


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

  • 8
    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
    Commented Apr 25, 2011 at 0:58
  • 2
    A jiffy is an official unit of time = 30ps (time light takes to go 1cm)
    – mgb
    Commented Apr 25, 2011 at 1:50
  • 8
    @Mitch: Are you referring to the metric wink or the imperial wink?
    – psmears
    Commented Apr 25, 2011 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
    Commented Apr 25, 2011 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
    Commented Apr 26, 2011 at 2:25

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.



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.


To answer the original question; a 'wink' is the time between blinks, as far as the '40 winks' phrase is concerned. It originates with sailors, soldiers or others on watch or on long duty without the benefits of a timepiece. One person would nap, while the other counted their normal blinks; when they got to 40, they would wake the napping person. The average person blinks 12-16 times per minute, so you're only looking at a 3-5 minute nap, depending on the 'blinker.'

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    – choster
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 15:49

A very long time ago I was an engineer doing time and motion studies in the automotive industry and we used the wink as a defined unit of time.

If I remember correctly a Wink is: 1/100 of a minute it is a unit of time used by industrial engineers (before computers and PDTS). Decimal minutes made arithmetic easier. You can still buy decimal minute stopwatches for time study.

  • Just looked at it again and it is 1/100 of a minute. You can still buy decimal minute stopwatches for the purpose.
    – Jim MacA
    Commented Feb 1, 2016 at 2:51
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    – Lawrence
    Commented Feb 1, 2016 at 3:13

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