A bedpost, unlike star, ice, snow, and a host of other riddle-ridden words, looks perfectly unexciting. But the situation becomes attractive, even thrilling if you ask a question about the origin of the phrase in a twinkling of a bedpost/bedstaff. Since I have written passionate essays about stars and called one of them “Twinkle, twinkle, little star,” I cannot pass by another twinkling body. This discussion will, most probably, be the last in my astronomical series. I wanted to write an essay about sun, but nothing came of my idea. The phonetics and the morphology of the words for “sun” in Indo-European have been discussed in minute detail, mainly because they belong to an archaic declension in which l alternates with n (compare Engl. sun versus the apparently related Latin sōl), but no one knows how this most important word acquired its meaning.
The sun moves, sheds its light, brings warmth, and does other things that make life possible. Which of those multiple blessings did people choose for naming it? The sun was revered, as the existence of many a divinity like Helios testifies. The noun designating sun was sometimes masculine and sometimes feminine. In Germanic, the word for “sun” has at least one synonym. All this is very instructive but tells us nothing about etymology in the only sense that interests us here: if the most ancient root sounded approximately swa’l, what did it refer to? On consideration, I decided to leave the sun alone and stay in bed. Hence this post about a post.
In a twinkling of a bedpost
The phrase in a/the twinkling of a bedpost (with the archaic variant bedstaff) means the same as in a twinkling of an eye, that is, “very quickly,” because twinkle, when used metaphorically, refers to a rapid movement. Agreed: eyes and stars twinkle, but bedposts don’t, and here is the rub. In my prospective dictionary of idioms, three lines are devoted to this phrase, and the OED of course lists it (the earliest citation there goes back to 1660). Yet the most interesting part is to follow people’s attempts to make sense of what looks like obvious nonsense. For starters, consult E. Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, the entry bedpost. Just search for it on the Internet.
My bibliography of this phrase spans the period between 1852 and 1905. The first correspondent (the source is, as always, the inestimable periodical Notes and Queries) wrote:
“It is generally supposed to have been a staff or round piece of wood, fixed by the side of a bedside to keep the bed in its place. If this were the case, it must have been at least six feet long, and strong enough to bear the weight of anyone leaning against it. But how can this be when we find it used by Bobadil, in Every Man in his Humour, to exhibit his skill with the rapier? Such a pole might have been used to show what could be done with a pike or spear; but it seems impossible that a staff as tall as a man’s self and as thick as his wrist, could have elucidated the lightning-like passes of the small sword.”
(Captain Bobadil, a despicable braggart, is the protagonist in one of Ben Jonson’s best-remembered play, mentioned above. Incidentally, all the correspondents wrote Johnson.)
Four years later, another correspondent referred to Thomas Wright’s book Domestic Manners and Sentiments of the Middle Ages:
“Here we see the chambermaid in the seventeenth century making use of a staff to beat up the bedding, in the process of making the bed. The rapid use of this implement would quite give the idea of twinkling. … The change from bedstaff to bedpost, is no doubt, recent. Horace Walpole [1717-1797] uses the former word.”
Very interesting, but twinkling? And what about Bobadil’s martial artis?
Yet the same idea occurred to a nineteenth-century observer:
“Anyone who has resided in Glasgow, or other Scotch town, and has enjoyed the luxury of a room with a window overlooking ‘a green’ … will easily understand the meaning of the above sentence. The Scotch servant lassies display such agility or elasticity of wrist in the dusting of beds, carpets, et hoc omne [‘and all this’; they did love displaying their knowledge of Latin, driven into them most firmly, as Mowgli’s friend Bagheera might put it] that the staves or sticks they use can hardly be seen while in motion, though the noise of the blows given with them, with the perpetual rap-rap-rap, can be compared to nothing so well as to the action of steam machinery.”
Now back to the seventeenth century. In a 1639 book, we see a woman approaching her drunken husband, who is in bed. She has a ladle in her hand, and he clutches:
“in one hand a heavy shoe, while the upreared right grasps the bed-staff as a foil to protect his head… This presumed ‘bed-staff’ of my plate answers to Jonson’s general description of a pin and is an implement of wood of damaging capability and, hurled through the air by a powerful arm, it would certainly reach the head of an offending party in a twinkling.”
Very true, but were bedposts ever constructed or meant by their designers as weapon?
Twinkle, twinkle, little bedpost! Perhaps some light on the situation will come from the idiom curtain lecture. Strangely, it originated at about the same time as the one about the bedpost (OED: 1633). According to a letter, this time in American Notes and Queries:
“a curtain lecture is a scolding given a husband by his wife and is so called from the curtained bed in which such a lecture might take place. … [This is common knowledge but read on!] In 1637 Thomas Heywood published A Curtaine Lecture, composed of several short tales about shrewish wives’ mistreatment of their husbands. The use of the term and depictions of curtain lecturers continued up through the 19th century in plays, novels, and essays.”
The Century Dictionary quotes Dryden and Addison. “What endless brawls by wives are bred! / The curtain-lecture makes a mournful bed.” “She ought, in such cases, to exert the authority of the curtain lecture, and if she finds him of a rebellious disposition, to tame him.” And the OED quotes Thackery.
We seem to be witnessing a well-developed culture of violent quarrels in bed! The idioms are typical of the Elizabethan and the post-Elizabethan epochs, and one wonders why no allusions to them appear in Shakespeare’s comedies. Perhaps there were puppet shows or ballads that immortalized those odd expressions? Pull devil, pull baker has this origin (see the post for 20 May 2020: “’The devil to pay’ and more devilry”). Just guessing.
So much for marital bliss and conjugal felicity about 400 years ago. A twinkle in your eye, ladies and gentlemen!
Feature image: Architrave with sculpted metope showing sun god Helios in a quadriga; from temple of Athena at Troy, ca 300-280 BCE; Altes Museum, Berlin, via Wikimedia Commons.