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The meaning and origin of the expression: The land of Nod

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The land of Nod

Meaning

Sleep.

Origin

We now usually think of 'The Land of Nod' as a mythical place, where we go to when we sleep. Nod was indeed a mythical location, but it was originally a place of anguished exile rather than of peaceful sleep. The very first few pages of the Bible refer to Nod, and locate it 'East of Eden' and it is where Cain dwelt after being cast out by God after Cain's murder of his brother Abel. 'East of Eden', being clearly not in Eden (Paradise) has also been taken up into the English language as a place/state of considerable discomforture. Forms of both phrases were published in early versions of the bible, but it is the forms in the King James Version that are now best remembered, Genesis 4:16:

4:11 And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand;
4:12 When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.
4:13 And Cain said unto the LORD, My punishment is greater than I can bear.
4:14 Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.
4:15 And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.
4:16 And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.

Nodding, as in the brief inclination of the head, has been in use as a verb in English since at least the 14th century; Geoffery Chaucer recorded it in The Manciple's Tale, circa 1390:

"Sirs, what! Dun is in the mire!
Is there no man, then, who, for prayer or hire,
Will wake our comrade who's so far behind?
A thief might easily rob him and bind.
See how he's nodding!

Obviously, people also nod their heads when dropping off to sleep ('nodding off') and it is easy to see how someone of a punning disposition might equate the land of Nod with sleeping. Step forward Dean Jonathan Swift. It appears that Swift was the first person to make the little linguistic joke, in A complete collection of genteel and ingenious conversation, 1738. The good Dean has his characters refer to several punning names for going to sleep:

Lady Answ. I'm sure 'tis time for honest Folks to be a-bed.
Miss. Indeed my Eyes draws Straw.
Col. I'm going to the Land of Nod.
Neverout. Faith, I'm for Bedfordshire.

See also, the meaning and origin of:

Sleep tight
Sleep like a top
Sleep on a clothesline