Sometimes I feel that sleep is like a thick and heady liquid and I am a piece of drying bread, and I am dropped into a pool of it or it is poured over me, and even if I am trying to be as dry as toast I sop it up until I am soaked and squishy and swimming in dreams. And when I wake, I am lifted out of it and it drains only slowly from me.
Sometimes I feel that sleep is like a delicious treat thrown to me, and even if I was busy being awake, I devour it and I am wrapped up in dreams until I am done it. And then, with a last swallow, I am awake again.
Both of these are sops: a sop is a piece of bread, soaked in wine or something wonderful, and perhaps even fried thereafter (yes, French toast starts as a sop). And a sop can be a loaf soaked in honey and thrown to the dog that guards the gates of Hades. When we talk about something being done or given as a sop to someone, the reference is to Sibyl throwing Cerberus a sop so Æneas could get past.
And neither of them has anything literal or etymological to do with soporific. And yet.
Soporific, as you may know, means ‘causing or conducing to sleep’. A soporific is a thing that puts you to sleep.* And if you say something is soporific – perhaps a movie or TV show you’re watching through your eyelids, or perhaps a speech or sermon – well, it ain’t exciting, we’ll put it that way.
For as long as I’ve know this word, I’ve thought of it as a little sloppy-seeming (sleep droolers of the world represent!), but especially I’ve thought of it as sopping. Which, for those of us who experience sleep as a heavy liquid draining into and out of our veins, seems sensible enough. But I’m not surprised that it’s mere coincidence.
The Latin root of soporific is sopor, which means ‘deep sleep’. It has a doublet that may look familiar, somnus, as in somnolent. Both come from the same Proto-Indo-European root, *swep-, a verb meaning ‘sleep’. Though they are related by that root to hypnotic (by Greek ὕπνος hupnos), they are not etymologically related (as far as I know) to stupor or to sleep. But there is an Old English word for ‘sleep’ that is related, a word that somehow to me seems even more sleepy than sleep: swefn (said “swevn”). A pity we have left it behind, but sleep is often a forgetting that is in turn forgotten.
But so it goes. We took a liking to classical roots; the myths and philosophies of the Romans and Greeks appealed to us more than those of the Celts and Saxons. And so we think soporific is somehow more exalted than sleep-inducing. But when we descend to dreamland, soaked in a soup of delicious sopor, what words matter anyway?
* In medicine they prefer the Greek-derived hypnotic to refer specifically to sleep-inducing drugs; however, the most popular drug for that effect is actually an antihistamine: if you’re in a hospital and they want you to sleep, you’re probably getting Benadryl.