Asleep at the switch and asleep at the wheel

Asleep at the switch and asleep at the wheel are idioms with origins that date back a little over one hundred years. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions that native speakers understand such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, chin up, on the ball, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the meaning of the idioms asleep at the switch and asleep at the wheel, their origins, and some examples of their use in sentences.

Asleep at the switch means inattentive, not taking care of one’s responsibilities, failing at one’s duty, not doing one’s job. The idiom asleep at the switch first appeared around 1900, and is related to the railroad industry. Railroad workers switched tracks or drove the train engine using levers. If the worker were asleep at the switch, then a collision would occur.

Asleep at the wheel also means inattentive, not taking care of one’s responsibilities, failing at one’s duty, not doing one’s job. Asleep at the wheel is also still used in a literal sense. The idiom asleep at the wheel came into use about twenty years after the appearance of the idiom asleep at the switch, and is related to driving a truck or automobile. Someone who falls asleep behind the wheel while driving will certainly be involved in an accident. People who drive in the middle of the night or after bedtime may fall asleep while driving because they are not getting enough hours of sleep or are suffering from sleep deprivation. While nighttime is when most drivers feel sleepy, lack of sleep or not getting enough sleep due to interrupted sleep patterns may cause drivers to drift off because of daytime sleepiness. It is important to have a good night of sleep or enough sleep so one does not become drowsy when driving. Some turn to stimulants when they are sleepy, which is not a good idea. Today, the term asleep at the wheel is about four times as popular as asleep at the switch.


Mr. Pompeo, speaking in the commercial capital Sydney, said, “We were asleep at the switch” as China began to steal data, launch military exercises in the disputed South China Sea and saddle other countries with debt to increase its influence. (The Wall Street Journal)

Of course, our entire legislative and executive branches were not asleep at the switch; they knew the day of reckoning was on its way and could have, one would think, taken quiet and effective action sooner. (The Washington Examiner)

Still, even if Dilma knew nothing about Petrobras graft (despite being on the board for seven years until 2010), we can at least all agree that she was asleep at the wheel. (Forbes Magazine)

Eaniri, who voted for the third reading, told The Enterprise on Wednesday that he was “asleep at the wheel” when the vote took place Tuesday evening and planned to change his vote at the clerk’s office. (The Enterprise News)


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