Saturday, September 22, 2012

sleepovers

What do the following expressions have in common?
  • sleepover
  • slumber party
  • pajama party
Yeah, right, they all refer to the same kind of thing. But look more closely--what else do they have in common? OK, I'll tell you. They are all American ways of describing the same thing--all of which are known in BrE, but used to lesser or greater degrees. 

Of course, the last one  is pyjama party in BrE, but don't let the spelling fool you. While/whilst pyjama party is not marked as having American origin in the OED, this Google ngram tells the story: first there was pajama party (blue line), then there was pyjama party:
 

Slumber party is very American, and I can't say I've ever heard a BrE speaker use it, but it's something they know from American films and books.

So, my question to my English friends was: if all these things are AmE, what did you call it when you were a kid? Their answer: they didn't have a noun for it. They'd sleep at their friends house, sure, but they'd just stay the night or stay over at Jen's. All verbs, no nouns. My friends also told me that they thought of the noun-described things as 'very American', 'the stuff of American books'. But don't let the lack of nouns make you think that British sleeping-over was just, you know, sleeping without the rituals of a nounified event. My friends all insist that staying at a friend's had to involve a midnight feast (which might be as early as 9:00). The OED defines this as:

n. a feast or snack at midnight; spec. a night-time feast held by children in their bedroom or dormitory, usually without the knowledge of their parents, teachers, etc.


I'd heard this phrase before in Charlie and Lola, but hadn't reali{s/z}ed what an institution they are. For a hint of how much of an institution, see this Guardian Word of Mouth blog about it. My friends attributed their knowledge of midnight feasts to Enid Blyton, but she certainly didn't invent the idea.

These days, the OED marks sleep-over (as they spell it) as 'chiefly U.S.', but my friends and their children use it liberally (though, it must be said, it so happens that many of Grover's little friends have a North American parent, so my sample is probably biased). Grover (who started big-kid school this week--it's a year earlier in UK than US) is absolutely obsessed with the notion (stress: the notion) of having a sleepover with her friends. Her favo(u)rite game with her friends has been, from an early age, 'going to bed'. Let me tell you, if you're going to have a small child at a late age, get one who likes to play bed-based games like 'going to sleep', 'bear cave', 'moles in holes', and 'driving a car' (just be sure that you're in the 'back seat', where the pillows and headboard are). Just come up with lines like 'my eyes are closed because I'm a blind mole' or 'the wind is in my face', and you're guaranteed late mornings in bed. 

Before I go, a note to readers nearby. I'm giving my talk 'How Americans saved the English Language' in a couple of places soon:
  • Thurs, 27 Sept, 4:00pm at Sussex University English Colloquium, Jubilee Building G08
  • Tues, 8 Oct, 8:00pm at Brighton Skeptics in the Pub, Caroline of Brunswick Pub. Details here.

45 comments:

n0aaa said...

Sounds like the ideal child. Now is this "raiding the refrigerator?" And is that an AmE. term for something similar? Or is it just more general. And do the Brits have a specific name for it?

Shaun Clarkson said...

To me pyjama party has more of a sense like toga party, an evening party for grown ups, dressed up in nightwear.(Not that I've ever been to one!)

ros said...

When I was a child pyjama parties were parties where you wore your pyjamas. They did not involve staying the night or sleeping. It was a form of fancy dress.

Staying the night at a friend's was sometimes a big deal but mostly just a way of my parents getting free babysitting. I did it quite a lot.

But midnight feasts, now those are the stuff of true legend. I went to a boarding school and the tradition in my boarding house was MF's on the last Saturday of term. We all pooled our pocket money, made a list and sent one of the older girls shopping. On the night itself, beds were pushed aside, everything was laid out carefully, and furtive trips were taken to the kitchen to use the tin opener. There were strict rules about not starting before midnight. We ate such delicacies as cold baked beans, primula cheese on ritz biscuits and toasted marshmallows. It was the absolute highlight of every term.

Anonymous said...

Re: "midnight feast." I know of one instance where this is also American. In Carson McCuller's _The Member of the Wedding_, the thirteen year-old, Southern protagonist is planning one for her and her friend who will be staying the night. I grew up in Texas and "staying the night" was most certainly how we spoke about this activity. A "slumber party" was something more organized (with games and delivered pizza) and involved at least two people being invited to stay the night. "Pajama party" sounds foreign, or perhaps Northern or Californian. My sense is that these days in the more urban and suburban areas of Texas "sleepover" has become the preferred term for "staying the night," but a slumber party remains a slumber party.

Debby said...

I think the American equivalent of a midnight feast is a midnight snack (though apparently not as elaborate).

When I was growing up in America, if one kid spent the night at a friend's house that was just "sleeping over." A slumber party was for a birthday, say, and included all sorts of party activities in addition to sleeping.

Marc Leavitt said...

"Sleepover" is the noun of choice in the New York Metro area as a formal reference. In informal conversation, after the fact, you're more likely to hear "His friend stayed, or slept over last night." I suspect "slumber party" is dated, and "pajama party" as well (do kids still wear pajamas? Maybe the little ones; in my experience, once they reach their teens, most girls wear over-sized t-shirts, and guys sleep in their underwear).

Sarah said...

I'm British, aged 30 (I don't know if this is a generational thing), and as a kid called them 'sleep overs', as someone would sleep over[night].

The other two sound distinctly American and I would have felt really weird inviting friends to a 'slumber party'.

enitharmon said...

I don't know how long the OED (not always right on the pulse) needs for a term to become recognised as general but my daughter, now 32, was going on, and hosting, sleepovers a quarter of a century ago. Sleepover was the standard term then.

As for "raiding the refrigerator", I suspect this is purely American; it seems to suggest something illicit and in my experience British children regard the contents of the fridge [sic] as their personal property. But midnight feasts surely go back as far as those so-very-English boarding school stories; the Chalet School (girls) or Billy Bunter (boys).

I think Lancaster University should be persuaded to invite Lynne to talk. She shouldn't be confining these events to Sussex and anyway I want a chance to come and hear her!

Robbie said...

In the midwest US in the 1960s-70s, we had "slumber parties" and "pyjama parties" pretty well interchangeably.

As Debby said, these were more than just a friend staying the night. A slumber/pyjama party involved several friends over at once, sleeping bags laid out in the living room, and some degree of planning. Campfire-type games, ghost stories, late-night snacks, and not much actual sleeping. It was very much an older kids' activity, for ages about 10 to 15.

nikkijayne said...

I'm 24 (and a Brit) but we always called it a sleepover.

Canadian said...

I loved reading about midnight feasts in British school stories! They were always secret affairs that happened in the middle of the night with each girl contributing treats her family had sent. I had no idea that they also occurred outside of the boarding school context!

Caroline Lakey said...

I'm a Brit (aged 38) and we said "stay the night at Katy's" for one friend staying over (often for childcare reasons, as someone has mentioned) and "sleepover" for a more organised party, with several friends staying, and generally for a birthday.
Like Ros, for me a pyjama party was an ordinary party where you wore pyjamas - definitely a girls' thing, no boys allowed! It was a daytime event, no staying over.
I didn't go to a boarding school, but midnight feasts were practically obligatory during any kind of organised trip involving an overnight stay, whether it was a Brownie pack holiday, Guide camp or school trip. We ate whatever we could get our hands on - often sweets and biscuits, and I can remember on one occasion family-sized cakes being passed round for everyone to take a bite!

Dru said...

I'm English, but another generation further back. The term 'sleepover' was beginning to be used when my children were small. They are now in their thirties. But I think really got going among the youngsters half a generation later than that, i.e. now in their twenties. I'm still not sure whether it's just a fancy word for staying the night at a friend's house, as Ros says, 'mostly a way of getting free baby sitting', or whether it means something more organised.

I've never heard of a 'slumber party'.

As Shaun Clarkson says, if I was asked to guess what a 'pyjama party' was, I'd imagine a party where everybody came in night attire. It definitely sounds louche, resonant of car keys. If it's a normal US expression for something innocent, I'd suggest not using it over here.

'Midnight feasts' are something quite different. They belong in children's fiction set in boarding schools of long ago.

PW said...

Would someone please explain this statement of Dru's for a clueless AmE speaker:
"It definitely sounds louche, resonant of car keys."

enitharmon said...

PW: I believe Dru is referring to a kind of entertainment for suburban married couples in which the men throw their car keys into a pile and the women go home for the night in the vehicle whose keys they picked from the pile.

Joe Green said...

PW's comment surprises me somewhat. I (BrE) had always thought of the car keys thing as a US invention. At least I associate it with a certain kind of US film set in suburbia. Perhaps not in PW's neck of the woods, eh? :-)

I'm with Dru and Shaun: a pyjama party definitely sounds grown-up.

An etymological query: does the "over" derive from "overnight" or "over at my/his/her/your place"?

Ken Brown said...

As Dru said, I think its in the last 30 years or so in Britain. And I suspect its a difference of behaviour, not just of language. I have no memory of either the name or the thing itself from my own childhood (1950s/60s) but when my own daughter was growing up it was "sleepover".

biochemist said...

I agree with the comments about slumber parties and pyjama parties - they sound much more organised than sleepovers. Sociological changes could underlie the upsurge in sleepovers - after all, you need a spare bed or two, or at least some space for sleeping bags on the floor - and a car for dropping off and being collected the next morning - all more likely in households with the required prosperity.

I always thought of them as a girly phenomenon until I began to hear about teenage, mixed sleepovers, and the associated dilemmas about sex. If the columnists in my newspaper are to be believed, teenage sleepovers are awkward and dangerous places where boys may feel obliged to 'perform' and girls are supplied with 'morning-after' pills by their anxious mothers.

Matt said...

I'm not sure of if other Americans feel the same way, but for me a slumber party is for younger children (chiefly girls) while a sleepover is for older children. "Spent the night" is for teenagers. Finally, "crashed" is the final "evolution" when we just pass out on some buddy's couch in a face plant after imbibing a little too much.

parlance said...

In the seventies, in Australian schools, we had 'sleep-ins' of three hundred little kids sleeping in the school hall. (Yes, we really did that, for no extra pay.) I've noticed that in the next couple of decades it morphed into 'sleep-overs'.
Also, re children liking 'going to bed' games, one of the all-time most popular games in the first couple of years of school in Australia was 'dead fish'. The kids lie down motionless on the floor and if they move any part of their anatomy other than to breathe, they are 'out'. Children who are out are allowed to join the teacher as judges. Guess whether teachers also love it? Kids adore it.

Joe1959 said...

Perhaps other sociological changes underlying (what I would see as) an upsurge in “sleepovers” (since I was a child in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when it would have definitely been “staying the night at a friends house”) are that we are having children later in life, and greater mobility means we are more likely to live away from our parents than previous generations.

If my parents wanted a night / weekend (or even a whole week during school holidays) to themselves, they would drop me and my brother off at my grandparents in the next town. Lucky parents – unlucky grandparents!

By the time I had kids, I lived three hundred miles away from my parents and there weren’t that many years after the kids were born that my parents were still in good enough health that (had they not lived three hundred miles away, and had they been willing) I would have been happy that they could properly take care of my kids.

Perhaps "sleepovers" help fill a gap previously filled by grandparents?

lynneguist said...

...though our UK family uses 'sleepover' when Grover's going to sleep at her grandmother's. But we know that that will involve G being spoil{ed/t} like mad/crazy.

Katherine C. James said...

I'm American. I think of a slumber party or a pajama party as an actual, formalized party of girls staying overnight at someone's home. I heard the phrases, but never used either as a child, and even then thought of them as vaguely ridiculous. When I stayed overnight with a girlfriend, or she stayed with me, I would have said we were "sleeping over." I would not have referred to it as a sleepover. I believe my vocabulary is atypically formal. My mom was a literature teacher and a librarian, and she and my well-educated American Indian dad were both serious about words and language. My dad had a relationship with language maybe more typical of a foreigner who learns English as a second language, because, while he spoke English from chidhood, he was the first generation of his paternal and maternal tribes who did not speak any tribal language. He spoke American English better, and with more understanding of the language, than many for whom it was more organic because as an outsider he was more aware of it.

Anonymous said...

My current crop of 7-10 year old Brownies in the UK often suggest that we have a pyjama party: this is always understood to mean a party in which they wear their pyjamas, not a sleepover (although they desperately want that too).

Joe1959 said...

Good point Lynne. My nieces did always refer to it as a "Sleepover" (at least in their pre-teen years) when they stayed with their grandparents.

In support of Shaun Clarkson's assertion that a “Pyjama Party” is for adults if found this article in the Telegraph (concerning the Leveson enquiry) that contains the quote: “Gordon Brown’s wife, Sarah, notoriously invited both Brooks and Murdoch’s wife, Wendi Deng, to a cringe-making pyjama party at Chequers.

I was going to assert that I had never been to such a thing and didn’t know anyone who had, but then I remembered that in my first year at Sheffield University I did take place in the “Pyjama Jump”; it was pretty much a “required” initiation (along with the “Boat Race” – another charity fundraiser, and an ironic comment on the more famous Oxford –v- Cambridge affair - which I see has now also fallen by the wayside).

Here is a documentary short filmed before the Pyjama Jump was finally banned in the 1990s. The synopsis on IMDB includes the following: “Documentary short about the University of Sheffield's infamous Pyjama Jump, where the students invade Sheffield's city centre each November dressed in drag. The idea behind it is to raise money for different charities, but the evening generally ends up with the students drinking lots of alcohol, causing a lot of mischief and mayhem, and having a lot of sex” which, though my memories of the evening are somewhat vague, sounds about right.

Joe1959 said...

Apologies for the mistyped hyperlinks in the previous comment which should have read:


Good point Lynne. My nieces did always refer to it as a "Sleepover" (at least in their pre-teen years) when they stayed with their grandparents.

In support of Shaun Clarkson's assertion that a “Pyjama Party” is for adults if found this article in the Telegraph (concerning the Leveson enquiry) that contains the quote: “Gordon Brown’s wife, Sarah, notoriously invited both Brooks and Murdoch’s wife, Wendi Deng, to a cringe-making pyjama party at Chequers.

I was going to assert that I had never been to such a thing and didn’t know anyone who had, but then I remembered that in my first year at Sheffield University I did take place in the “Pyjama Jump”; it was pretty much a “required” initiation (along with the “Boat Race” – another charity fundraiser, and an ironic comment on the more famous Oxford –v- Cambridge affair - which I see has now also fallen by the wayside).

Here is a documentary short filmed before the Pyjama Jump was finally banned in the 1990s. The synopsis on IMDB includes the following: “Documentary short about the University of Sheffield's infamous Pyjama Jump, where the students invade Sheffield's city centre each November dressed in drag. The idea behind it is to raise money for different charities, but the evening generally ends up with the students drinking lots of alcohol, causing a lot of mischief and mayhem, and having a lot of sex” which, though my memories of the evening are somewhat vague, sounds about right.

Wendy B said...

I'm an American mom of two teens. We use the term 'slumber party' to refer to a group of girls spending the night at one person's house. It is most often affiliated with a birthday party so gifts and snacks usually accompany this event. It often includes activities like a movie or spa-type activities: polishing each other's nails, putting streaks of temporary color in each other's hair, etc. The girls stay up late into the night and the host home serves breakfast the following day. Teenage boys do not have slumber parties.

Boys typically say 'sleep-over party' to refer to the equivalent of a girls' slumber party.

"Raiding the refrigerator" almost always accompanies a male sleepover party and doesn't just include the fridge but the cupboards as well. The boys rifle through the kitchen looking for anything to eat that strikes their fancy.

Sleep-over is a term to refer to one or two friends sleeping at another friend's house without a specific event attached to it. Nothing is necessarily planned by way of entertainment. Kids just get together in the evening, sleep in sleeping bags on the floor at bedtime and spend a few hours together the next day. Think of it as an extended play date.

Neither my children nor I (while it was growing up) ever used the term 'pajama party.' Perhaps it is a colloquial term such as the demographic names for soft drinks, soda, pop and soda pop. But that's another blog.

acallis said...

Lately sleep-unders have become popular around here (US Midwest). Either for younger kids who aren't ready for a full night away or for groups of girls to get together for a casual party (birthday or not). Sometimes they include pajamas and sleeping bags while others are just parties that run until 10 or 11 at night.

rachel said...

I have a teenage daughter (Gloucestershire UK). For the last few years, birthday parties have ended with a favoured few staying the night/having a sleepover. As she has become friends with boys as well as girls, boys will also stay over (though they've been heavily outnumbered by girls).

I have never yet provided emergency contraception. I asked her about these rumours and she just thought it was funny. Our consensus was that you might cuddle an existing boyfriend during a mixed sleepover, but that would definitely be it.

Anonymous said...

I'm English and 29 (girl) and if I ever had a planned overnight stay at a friend's house, whether it was just me and the friend or others too, it was always 'a sleepover'. And always involved a midnight feast- when we were younger anyway like aged 6-8. I went to boarding school as a teen and though I stopped midnight feasting at friends' houses, they moved to school where we would stage frankly spectacular clandestine feasts once or twice a term... seems a bit ridiculous they were such an 'occasion' as it was just food but I think the fact it was smuggled and we weren't allowed to talk when we were supposed to be sleeping made it so much fun... good times

Ginger Yellow said...

idea behind it is to raise money for different charities, but the evening generally ends up with the students drinking lots of alcohol, causing a lot of mischief and mayhem, and having a lot of sex

To be fair, that describes most evenings for British students.

Tom Lines said...

Thanks for the tip. I live round the corner from the Caroline of Brunswick! Will try to come to your talk next Tuesday.

Dana said...

I live in Washington State and have 2 teenage girls. We generally use the term "stay the night", but I would use "sleeping over", too.

As for going to a regular party in your pajamas for a "pajama party"-well, this is the first time I have heard of doing that, and I have to say it sounds kinda funny to me and also something only for children. I would also use the term "pajama-themed party". Though on March 2nd, the elementary kids go to school in their pajamas in celebration of Dr. Suess's birthday.

And sadly, I do have to add that I have seen many people out in public in the middle of the day in their pajamas and slippers. I'm not kidding, either. Maybe they were on their way to a pajama party and had to stop at the store first!

Lindenwood said...

As a 40yo Australian, I am fairly sure they were referred to as slumber parties during my childhood. (They also usually involved an M-rated movie - in one memorable case, Poltergeist, and I've never liked that space under the bed, or clowns, since.)

My children now refer to them as sleepovers.

Ideaswise Freelance Copywriter said...

In my corner of the UK, it's always been 'sleepover'. The difference is that they didn't really exist when I was a kid.

Sine Nomine said...

Matt describes how it is in my mind, with the note that "Slumber party" is exclusively for girls.

Anonymous said...

I'm a 40 y/o Ausyralian and I always called this a slumber party (if it was eg a birthday party) or sleepover when I was a kid.

Christopher said...

I still get a kick from telling my American friends that I need a kip. If interested, here's some of the funnier encounters I have had as a Brit in the US:http://allinaword.blogspot.com/2009/11/manner-of-speaking.html

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I (BrE) was amused recently when my 85-year-old mother told me that her youngest granddaughter was going to "have a sleepover" with her. When I was young, I would spend the night with my grandmothers, but then, vocabulary changes.

In my experience, midnight feasts were more fun in the anticipation and the planning than the reality! I was at a boarding-school and they were traditional at the end of term, despite the headmistress' efforts to ban them. The housemistresses, fortunately, disagreed and turned a blind eye.

rushingtoread said...

I just heard a character on an American television show for preschoolers say, "It’s not a *sleepover* pajama party; just a party in our pajamas!" to clarify when she announced she was having a pajama party. As a 30-something American, I would have needed that clarification as a child because "pajama party" and "slumber party" would have been synonymous to me. Actually, I still would. I've heard of Pajama Day at schools during Spirit Week but never a pajama party where people dress in pajamas to attend a party that wouldn't otherwise require them!

Rosanne said...

I had a slumber party for my 14th birthday; my sister had one as her "Sweet Sixteen." The den floor was covered in mattresses, and girls brought blankets (only outdoorsy folk had sleeping bags in the sixties) and wore cute or funny or fancy pajamas to the event. My parents served snacks and birthday cake. The first person to fall asleep would be subject to pranks of some sort. A favorite was to roll her bra into a ball, wet it, and put it in the freezer. Dirty jokes or scary stories might be told. Nails, hair braiding, facial masks and the like we're also common.

John Augustine said...

There seems to be a perception that slumber parties are mostly a girl thing. As a boy in the US in the seventies, I had a lot of sleepovers and one slumber party where we stayed up late talking about girls. In my experience, there were more similarities than differences between pre-teen boys and girls.

There was even an episode of American Dad recently where teenage boys were mocked for still having slumber parties. But the word "still" implied even the jocks had slumber parties when they were younger.

Senji said...

My (BrE, Yorkshire) sister used both sleepover and slumber-party in the late 80s/early 90s; with sleepover being restricted to just her visiting a friend overnight, and slumber-party being a group overnighting.

Anonymous said...

Some Americans just call it "an overnight," which sounds dumb to me, but is probably more accurate. I don't recall a lot of sleeping ever occurring during these events.

Chloe said...

To me, an American:
1) A sleepover is a casual event for two or more friends, when you spend the night. The older you are, the less likely it is that you use the noun form- by high school, I'd usually tell my parents "I'm going to sleep over at X's" rather than "Y's having a sleepover."
2)A sleepover party or slumber party carries connotations of a bigger group, with more preparations, and often tied to a birthday or other event. Seems more juvenile.
3) A pajama party to me is just a daytime themed party where you wear your pajamas. I went to several of these as an elementary-school aged child. I've never heard of an adult version, though it sounds fun.