Community & Culture

The Ideal Definition: Tulo and Other Words for Sleep

If you know Chichewa, you know that the definition of tulo is sleep. While people around the world may use different words, we all mean the same thing when we’re talking about the definition of sleep: tulo is what we do eight hours every night so we wake up refreshed.

If you know anything about human beings, you know that we don’t all do everything the same way. We don’t all go to sleep at the same time, and we don’t all sleep the same hours. People who live in the same household don’t have the same sleep practices, let alone our entire species. As there are many kinds of people, there are many kinds of sleep, and many occasions for it.

If you’re French, for example, you have le sommeil, which has the same definition as tulo. But to sleep is dormir (to sleep) or coucher (to lay down) or sommeiller (to doze). If you’re German, to doze is dösen—like dozin’. And if you don’t doze enough, you’ll be dämmern—dopey (the same word for “dawn”). If you’re actually up at dawn, you might feel frühlichkeit. Literally, that’s “early gaity,” or the feeling of being special since you’re awake while everyone else is asleep. Okay, that one is made up.

If you’re Spanish-speaking, you’d say you’re desvelado if you’re sleep deprived. In which case, you might start experiencing head bobs, or cabezadas. If you’re Italian, you might feel the need to nod off at the table after a large meal. There’s a word for that: l’abbiocco. It’s conceptually not too different from hygge, the Danish and Norwegian word for the feeling of coziness and friendship and sleepy contentment after a satisfying communal meal.

Some occasions for sleep are not so comfortable! In Japan, people often sleep at work, on the job. It’s called inemuri, or literally sleeping while present. Sleeping at work is a daily practice in China, too. But people in China sleep at noontime no matter where they are. It’s perfectly fine to stop what you’re doing and take a snooze on a park bench.

Then there is just downright scary sleep. Tsonga, a language that’s spoken in southern Africa, has a word rhwe. It’s just four letters. But it means to sleep on the floor with no mat, inebriated and nude. This sounds like the worst kind of sleep we can imagine! But then there is the Balinese phrase todoet poeles, or “fear sleep.” This is sleep that happens under extreme duress. If you learn there is a warrant for your arrest, for example, you might suddenly succumb to todoet poeles. Apparently there is an alternative to fight or flight—sleep.

Of course, we think sleep should be as comfortable as possible. Whether you’re napping at your desk or snoozing fitfully or dropping off in fear, all sleep aspires to a better 7-9 hours in bed. When we say the definition of tulo is sleep, we mean the best kind of sleep. No matter where we live or what language we speak, that’s what we want, and that’s what we deserve.

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