In the Book of Genesis, the land of Nod is a region to the east of Eden to which Cain went after he had killed his brother Abel:
(King James Version – 1611)
4:16: And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the East of Eden.
(Hebrew נוד, Nod, is the root of the verb לנדוד, to wander.)
The land of Nod came to be used jocularly in the sense of a state of sleep by association with the noun nod, meaning an involuntary movement of the head when falling asleep. The first known user of this punning phrase was the Irish satirist, poet and Anglican cleric Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) in A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation, According to the Most Polite Mode and Method Now Used at Court, and in the Best Companies of England, published in London in 1738 but composed in the first decade of the 18th century.
This book is a satire on the use of clichés: its purported author, Simon Wagstaff, assures “the Reader, that there is not one single witty Phrase in this whole Collection, which hath not received the Stamp and Approbation of at least one hundred Years”. Therefore, the land of Nod in the sense of a state of sleep was most probably already a well-established pun when Swift wrote the book. Indeed, in the following extract as in the rest of the book, the characters only use hackneyed phrases:
Lady Answerall. I’m sure ’tis time for honest Folks to be a-bed.
Miss Notable. Indeed my Eyes draws [sic] Straw¹.
[She’s almost asleep.
Mr. Neverout. Why, Miss, if you fall asleep, somebody may get a Pair of Gloves².
Colonel Atwit. I’m going to the Land of Nod.
Mr. Neverout. Faith, I’m for Bedfordshire³.
¹ Attested in the mid-17th century, the phrase to draw, gather, or pick, straws meant, of the eyes, to be sleepy.
² A woman who kissed a sleeping man won of him a pair of gloves; the English poet and playwright John Gay (1685-1732) evoked this custom in The Shepherd’s Week (London, 1714):
Cic’ly, brisk Maid, steps forth before the Rout,
And kiss’d with smacking Lip the snoring Lout.
For Custom says, Who-e’er this Venture proves,
For such a Kiss demands a pair of Gloves.
³ Bedfordshire had been humorously used for bed since the mid-17th century.
The Land of Nod is a poem by the Scottish novelist, poet and travel writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94), from A Child’s Garden of Verses (London, 1885), a book of poetry for children:
From breakfast on through all the day
At home among my friends I stay;
But every night I go abroad
Afar into the land of Nod.
All by myself I have to go,
With none to tell me what to do—
All alone beside the streams
And up the mountain-sides of dreams.
The strangest things are there for me,
Both things to eat and things to see,
And many frightening sights abroad
Till morning in the land of Nod.
Try as I like to find the way,
I never can get back by day,
Nor can remember plain and clear
The curious music that I hear.