Sleep and Slumber since 1500 B.C.

As a sleep researcher, all things about sleep interests me. Other than sleep habits and how they influence health, I am also interested in understanding how sleep behaviours have changed over the last few years, decades, and even centuries. A great tool by Google allowed me to take a sneak peak at the use of the words ‘sleep’ and ‘slumber’ since the 1500’s. Google Books Ngram Viewer allows you to graph terms and phrases that have appeared in books that Google has been digitizing since 2009.

The spike in the use of the word ‘sleep’ between 1650 and 1800 is surprising because book publishing in the 16th to 18th centuries were rare occurrences, and Google automatically normalizes graphs by the number of books published in each year. Shakespeare, known for his famous quotes such as the one below, did not publish his sonnets during this period:

O sleep! O gentle sleep!

Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,

That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down

And steep my senses in forgetfulness?

Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,

Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee,

And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,

Than in the perfum’d chambers of the great,

Under the canopies of costly state,

And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?

2 Henry IV (3.1.7-16)

Similarly, what caused the increase in the use of the word ‘slumber’ in the 1800’s, and at the same time, the decrease in the use of the word ‘sleep’?

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Category History of Sleep

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