When we think about a lullaby, we immediately remember soft, soothing music meant to encourage rest and sleep. But…why that word?

My husband and I were wondering about this at bedtime one night, and as I pondered it, I said, “Surely it’s related to lull.” But was I right?

As a matter of fact, I was. 😉 Lull dates from the early 1300s, from the previous form of lullen, which means “to calm or hush to sleep.” It’s thought to be a bit of an onomatopoeia word, based on the wordless lu-lu-lu (or as we spell it now, la-la-la) song that a parent would sing or hum to their child to soothe and calm and put to sleep. Swedish, Dutch, German, and Sanskrit all have similar words!

Lullaby had developed as a noun to describe this singing by around 1580, a combination of lullen + by. But…where did that “by” come in? That’s a little less certain. Some etymologists suggest it might be borrowed from goodbye, but others think it’s just a meaningless extension, tacked on because it sounded good.

As I was musing on the word at bedtime, I observed that rock-a-bye sounds very similar as is a lullaby. This is from the 1800s and combines the act of rocking a baby to sleep with that -by ending of lullaby.

Anyone else ready for a nap??

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