Siesta was first used in the English language by English people who had experienced an afternoon sleep in Spain. It relates to the sixth hour, or the hottest part of the day.
In a seventeenth century letter written by writer and historian James Howell, he remarks humorously on how to keep a siesta down to an acceptable level. The trick was to relax in a seated posture with a gold ball in one’s hands; this would drop into a copper pot upon sleep and make so much noise that the sleeping person would wake immediately.
The next time that the word siesta appeared in English writing was some twenty years later in the play, Elvira. Its author George Digby (also Earl of Bristol) had a colourful life as one of the leading politicians, diplomats and soldiers in England in the middle of the sixteenth century. He was born in Spain and also travelled there as a diplomat. In his play, the character Don Julio accuses his sister of having a siesta. It appears that the word was not generally known at this time since a comment was included in the footnotes, “The heat of the day, from noon forwards. So called from Hora Sexta, noon-day, a time when the Spanish ladies retire to sleep.”
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