Sunday, January 08, 2012

Just now I was on the OED website looking up 'sleep' in the sense of 'this house sleeps five' when I came across this menacing citation:

1848    J. R. Bartlett Dict. Americanisms (at cited word),   She could eat fifty people in her house, but could not sleep half the number.

And that led me to an old American usage of 'eat' with which I was previously unfamiliar and of which every single example made me laugh:

1837    Crockett Almanac 17   Well, Capting, do you ate us, or do we ate ourselves?
1842    Spirit of Times (Philadelphia4 Mar.,   [The Bay State Democrat says that Mr. Dickens] has declined the invitation of the Philadelphians to eat him.
1855    ‘Q. K. P. Doesticks’ Doesticks, what he Says vii. 53,   I resolved‥to quit the premises of the Emerald Islander who agreed to ‘lodge and eat’ us.
a1860    Pickings fr. Picayune 47,   I was told you'd give us two dollars a day and eat us.
1889    J. S. Farmer Americanisms (at cited word),   A steamer is alleged to be able to eat 400 passengers and sleep about half that number.
1928    S. V. BenĂ©t John Brown's Body 367   You ought to be et. We'll eat you up to the house when it's mealin' time.

Admittedly, the third of those is a deliberate pun, although not, as you might think, a pun about cannibals: Doesticks (the humorist Mortimer Thompson) was staying in an Irish boarding house so plagued with mosquitoes that his hostess had 'nearly fulfilled the latter clause [i.e. to "eat us"] by proxy'.

2 comments:

Unknown said...

That is really interesting. Nice job.
I suppose this has to do with the essentially intransitive nature of sleep, which discourages any kind of "put them to sleep" reading, and the transitive potential of eat. Normally we can eat things, but we cannot sleep them. I think it's fantastic that the language once allowed us to sleep people, i.e. give them a place to sleep.

Gregory Bryce said...

Unknown #1 says, "I think it's fantastic that the language once allowed us to sleep people, i.e. give them a place to sleep."

It does still, at least in my dialect (western Canada.)
"My bed and breakfast sleeps eight."
"I can sleep eight."

If only I could get enough sleep!