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There are two examples I can think of, both music related. The first is "Is anybody going to San Antone" by Charley Pride: Sleepin' under a table in a roadside park, a man could wake up dead.

The other is the title song from a bootleg album by Jimi Hendrix: "Woke Up This Morning and Found Myself Dead".

There are other references that I'm not familiar with but found by searching - a TV show "Woke Up Dead", for example.

I've always assumed it meant hungover or otherwise ailing, but I'm not sure.

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    "Sleepin' under a table in a roadside park, a man could wake up dead" is a way of saying that it is dangerous to sleep there. Of course you can't wake up if you are dead, but it is a humorous expression used sometimes. Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 17:40
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    This is not a set phrase. It's just a clever juxtaposition of contrary elements because of course it is impossible to be dead and wake up. If you're confused by it, then you're reading the language right - it's intended to be contrary.
    – Mitch
    Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 17:55
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    In rhetoric, the trope that is found in the phrase "wake up dead" is an oxymoron, which pits two seemingly irreconcilable concepts side by side, sometimes--but not always--for humorous effect. Examples: deafening silence (as when you are on the "outs" with your spouse); He's proud of his humility; a fretful calm (the feeling a teenager gets on his way home from being in a minor car accident when he thinks how he's going to tell his parents; and serious play (that is how many kids engage in what we adults call play, but to the kids, it's hard work they take seriously. Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 18:17
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    If you believe in a conscious afterlife then there is no contradiction. Waking up is a return to consciousness and, if you died in your sleep, you would return to consciousness, albeit the consciousness of the afterlife. You would wake up dead.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Mar 30, 2021 at 0:01
  • What research is shown by "I've always assumed it meant hungover or otherwise ailing, but I'm not sure…"? Commented Apr 1, 2021 at 21:48

5 Answers 5

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It's a way of saying that a person might die in his sleep, and thus never wake up at all.

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    @KannE It is always ironic though. Sometimes the ironic is playful, sometimes it's an example of dark humour.
    – Graham
    Commented Mar 30, 2021 at 11:10
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The best (?!) explanation I have seen of this saying comes from Scary Movie 3 (2003)...

Mahalik : I heard Jamal from 90th street watched that tape last week and this mornin' he woke up dead!
CJ : How the hell do you wake up dead?
Mahalik : Cause' you're alive when you go to sleep.
CJ : So you're telling me you can go to bed dead and wake up alive?
Mahalik : You can't go to bed dead! That shit would've been redundant.
CJ : No it would'nt cause' you can go to bed and not be dead, and you can die and not be in the bed.
Mahalik : But you are in the bed. That's how you wake up dead in the first place fool!
CJ : Damn! that's some quantum shit right there man! You should be teaching classes!

It's an American quip that goes back quite a few years, and usually describes dying in your sleep. For silliness, it probably ranks right up there with

I literally died!

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    Ah, the devolution of the word "literally" to mean literally the opposite of "literally"... Commented Mar 30, 2021 at 13:58
  • @DarrelHoffman I tend to think of it as irony rather than devolution - as if to say "no, not metaphorically; literally!" with a bit of sarcasm to emphasize the metaphor and set it apart from traditional, perhaps cliche, use of the metaphor. Commented Mar 30, 2021 at 16:18
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This is nothing to do with dying in one's sleep. It's a contradiction used as a warning to 'take care or else!' A bit like 'sleep with the fishes'. Take care or you might die rather suddenly without knowing how.

It's not a 1st person thing. "On Thursday I woke up dead." is a distortion for humorous effect.

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The origin of this is the Bible.

The King James (1611) version of 2 Kings 19:35 reads

And it came to pass that night, that the angel of the LORD went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses.

AFAIK this is perfectly idiomatic in ancient Hebrew, where "when they arose early in the morning" simply means "on the next day", but the literal translation is rather humorous in English.

Some modern translations sidestep this by taking "they" to mean the Israelites and not the dead Assyrians, but that is grasping at straws IMO.

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Topper: George and Marion, waking up dead: https://youtu.be/qt1UDSilFxg

After a car crash (but Marion was sleeping before the crash), still...

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