WORD IN THE HAND: NAP
Don’t get caught noodling, nab a forty-fying hnaffezan
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
Have you noticed how criminals are never arrested anymore? Not according to most news headlines, anyway. No one is apprehended or detained on suspicion of wrongdoing. Today’s miscreants must be seized, nailed, or, more frequently, nabbed.
This is completely understandable. Nab is far more economical than “take into custody” and we should be saving words and space as well as water.
Like last week’s libelled cannibals, nab has its origins in mispronunciation. It was first nap, which in 17th-century English meant to seize. This sense of nap is still an accessory in the word “kidnap”, but in the grabby sense nap has had its day and been replaced with nab.
We still have that other kind of nap, however, the forty winks indulged in after a heavy lunch or halfway through an arduous bout of TV-watching.The grasping sort of nap that became nab came from the same root that gave various Scandinavian languages their words for catching and snatching (nappa and nappe), but the sleeping kind of nap comes from another bed entirely.
It was nabbed from the Old High German hnaffezan, meaning a light doze.
Hnaffezan is a most excellent word, perfectly describing the sound a person makes while having an upright kip. If you have ever sat next to a hnaffezaner on any sort of public transport you will know what I mean.
Speaking of forty winks, I have always assumed that this expression metaphorically meant sleeping with one eye open for the space of 40 seconds, or perhaps 40 minutes. Which is as good an explanation as any, because the coiner of the phrase never explained himself.
The man who gave us forty winks and launched a million mattresses was one William Kitchiner, an optician born in 1775 who was the original renaissance man.He published a recipe book called The Cook’s Oracle that was a bestseller in the UK and the US. Then he wrote a self-help guide, The Art of Invigorating and Prolonging Life, which got people so excited they forgot to have a nap after lunch.
You could say that Kitchiner paved the way for Jamie Oliver, Oprah and all the rest of the life-hack brigade. If TV had been around then he would’ve been massive.
Anyway, it was Kitchiner, in 1821, who wrote the immortal words “forty winks”. His wisdom on the subject is worth quoting at length:
“Is it not better economy of time to go to sleep for half an hour than to go on noodling all day in a nerveless and semi-superannuated state – if not asleep, certainly not effectively awake for any purpose requiring the energy of either the body or the mind? A forty winks nap in an horizontal posture is the best preparative for any extraordinary exertion of either.”They said things differently then. By “semi-superannuated” Kitchiner meant half-obsolete, in other words mostly useless (and not “entitled to a paid holiday”, which is how superannuated is sometimes employed in modern business-speak).
His use of “noodling” is more perplexing.
In jazz terminology, to noodle is to improvise a melody, but it was first used in the 1930s and Kitchiner wrote his advice manual more than a century prior to that so I don’t think he was talking about scat songs, even though he was an amateur musician and inventor of telescopes as well as a dab hand with a mushroom sauce.
It is more likely that Kitchiner was using the verb form of the slang word “noodle”, which referred to a fool or simpleton. They were less politically correct back then.There is one more possibility. Noodling is a sport played by the inhabitants of some southern American states, who stick their bare hands into catfish holes in rivers to see if they can nab a napping barbel.
If that’s the kind of noodling Kitchiner meant, you can understand why he advised having a nap to resuscitate the faculties.
Kitchiner also suggested that a half-hour siesta was as refreshing as half a pint of wine, which seems a bit odd given that half a pint of wine usually leads to a half-hour siesta, but maybe wine was different then too.
Enough of this noodling around. I’m going to nab a quick hnaffezan.