“Good night. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”
For most adults, it’s a familiar little rhyme, a throwback to childhood. For those in major cities like New York ― where real bedbugs turn once-happy people into balls of despair and anxiety ― it can also conjure a visceral sense of terror. Say it to anyone who’s dealt with the nightmare of bedbugs and watch them visibly flinch.
But when did this little rhyme appear on the scene? And what did it initially refer to?
Fossils and early texts indicate that bedbugs existed as far back as ancient Egypt and Rome under various names. Colonization and industrialization fostered their spread in North America, until DDT and other pesticides wiped out most of them in the mid-20th century.
The cutesy bedbug rhyme predates the DDT era, but today, it again has a too-real connotation. Over the past two decades, bedbugs have made such an aggressive resurgence in the U.S. that CBS deemed 2010 the “Year of the Bed Bug.”
There are multiple origin theories around the rhyme, specifically the “sleep tight” portion and its relation to “don’t let the bedbugs bite.” One popular theory suggests that it relates to the way beds were made during the 16th and 17th centuries. Before the introduction of spring mattresses in the 19th century, mattresses were often filled with straw and feathers and sat on a latticework of ropes.
Because it was necessary to tighten the ropes regularly to prevent sagging, many have suggested this practice is the origin of the phrase “sleep tight.”
Tightening the ropes would both allow for a good night’s sleep and keeping the mattress off the ground to avoid bedbugs, so the story goes. (A related bit of folklore is the tidbit that if guests had overstayed their welcome, their hosts would drop a passive-aggressive hint by loosening the ropes under guests’ mattresses to make their accommodations uncomfortable.)
Some have proposed that the “Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite” portion is a reference to bedding, and the goal of making your bed tightly to keep bedbugs out. But, given that bedbugs typically live in mattresses, it seems that would be ineffective, which casts doubt on that theory.
Another theory is that the phrase refers to tying sleepwear tightly to keep bed bugs out, but that one is similarly dubious.
Historians refute these origin theories on the grounds that they lack definitive proof and don’t line up with the timeline of the rhyme’s earliest appearances in text. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the phrase “sleep tight” simply means “sleep soundly,” as the adverb “tightly” once meant “soundly, properly, well, effectively.”
Etymologist Barry Popik, a contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary, wrote about the full rhyme on his blog in 2010.
“The rhyme ‘Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite’ became used in the United States by the 1880s and 1890s. In some versions, ‘mosquitoes’ did the biting. An earlier version (from the 1860s and 1870s) was ‘Good night, sleep tight, wake up bright in the morning light, to do what’s right, with all your might.’”
Indeed, the earliest cited usages of the phrase date back to the late 19th century, though there are slightly earlier examples without the “bug” mention as well.
At the beginning of the 1881 book Boscobel: A Novel by Emma Mersereau Newton, a young boy tells his parents, “Good night, sleep tight; And don’t let the buggers bite.” In Henry Parker Fellows’ 1884 book Boating Trips on the New England River, a little girl wishes boaters “Good-night” and then adds, “May you sleep tight, Where the bugs don’t bite!”
In the June 1888 issue of Judge’s Young Folks: An Illustrated Paper For Boys & Girls, a young girl in one short story tells her dolls, “Now, good-night, dollies, sleep tight, and don’t let nothing bite.”
The exact phrase appears in the 1896 book What They Say in New England: A Book of Signs, Sayings, and Superstitions, which describes “Good-night, Sleep tight, Don’t let the bedbugs bite” as “a verse said by a boy who parts his companion in the evening.”
The phrase became better known over time, even appearing in a 1923 F. Scott Fitzgerald work. In 1927, blues musician Furry Lewis recorded a bedbug-themed song called “Mean Old Bed Bug Blues,” which was covered by a number of famous singers, including Bessie Smith.
Even as bedbugs somewhat disappeared over the course of the 20th century, parents continued to say “Good night. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite” to their children at bedtime. The rhyme became widespread, appearing in countless texts and inspiring book titles into the 21st century.
As Popik noted in his analysis, the “bugs,” “buggers” and “bedbugs” in the earliest examples could also refer to other pests. New Zealand-born English lexicographer Eric Partridge wrote in his Dictionary of Catch Phrases that the U.K. version of the rhyme was actually “Good night / Sleep tight / Mind the fleas don’t bite.”
Jan Freeman, who wrote The Boston Globe’s “The Word” column for 14 years, responded to Popik’s list of early uses of the rhyme with a likely take on the origin of “Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”
As Freeman stated on her blog, “It seems pretty clear from Popik’s list of Google cites that the buggy versions were earthy variations on a sweet Victorian sentiment, coined for no better (or worse) reason than shock value and a snappy rhyme.”
And thus, as with many origin stories, the truth is probably less exciting than the embellished myth. Whatever the origin, however, we know one thing for certain: You should really think twice before saying the word “bedbugs” to a city dweller, cutesy rhyme or not.