I have been googling around, searching for the origins of the phrasal verb "to fall asleep" but so far I have found no references. I was wondering specifically why we use the verb "to fall" to characterize the process of going to sleep and my conjecture is that it somehow links in with the connotations of tiredness and fatigue that the verb "to fall" bears.

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    There is a remarkable parallelism between the occurrences of 'fall asleep' and 'fall in love'. I imagine this is more than a simple coincidence. books.google.com/ngrams/… Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 18:23
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    @chaslyfromUK Seeing that, it may be simply that sleep is being characterized as something involuntarily and overwhelming that all our bodies must relinquish to, since in "to fall in love" the verb "fall" characterizes similar things: english.stackexchange.com/questions/138876/… .
    – user142917
    Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 18:33
  • We fall asleep, we fall in love, we fall sick, we fall silent. And looking in the OED, it used to be the case the we fell angry and fell mad. It seems that this use of fall was unexceptional, and fall asleep is one of the fixed phrases that use it that has stayed in the language. Commented Jun 5, 2023 at 16:59
  • It's a metaphor. If LIFE is a JOURNEY, falling is an interruption, possibly a fatal one, depending on how far one falls. In any event, falling is an event where people lose control, and that's the critical component for falling asleep, in love, for somebody, away from something, etc. In each of these cases, one is not an actor but a patient. Oh, and it's not a phrasal verb; it's a bunch of idioms with fall, each consistent with the metaphor theme. Commented Jun 5, 2023 at 17:31

4 Answers 4


The use of the phrasal verb is attested in Middle English from 1393:

1393 Langland Piers Plowman C. xxii. 5 Ich fel eft-sones a slepe.

[From "fall, v.". OED Online. September 2015. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/67829?rskey=76QoIB&result=2&isAdvanced=false (accessed October 15, 2015).]

This use draws on a verbal sense of 'fall' attested possibly around 1225:

  1. a. Of persons: To pass (usually, with suddenness) †in, into, †to, upon some specified condition, bodily or mental, or some external condition or relation.

?c1225 (▸?a1200) Ancrene Riwle (Cleo. C.vi) (1972) 166 He..swa feol into unhope.

(op. cit.)


The particular meaning of "fall" is fossilized in several phrases, like "to fall in love," "to fall ill" - it's not about the feeling of falling asleep, but rather an archaic usage of "becoming (a state)."

  • To fall in love is attested from 1520s; to fall asleep is late 14c. To fall down is early 13c. (a-dun follon); to fall behind is from 1856. Fall through "fail, come to nothing" is from 1781. To fall for something is from 1903.


  • a 1300 Cursor M. 7428 Þe king he sal gar fall o-slepe.-

My conjecture would be perhaps the physical sensation we have sometimes when we are "falling asleep " the feeling that we are literally falling, quite often accompanied by a sharp jerk that brings us back the state of wakefulness again.


"to fall asleep" - Can mean, forgetfulness, example, I can't believe I did that! If you're awake at all times, you are more likely to do things with an awakened conscience.

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