Safe and sound?

2012-07-03 13:49



Safe and sound?

Reader question:

Please explain the phrase “safe and sound”, as in this headline: Missing student returns home safe and sound. Safe, yes, but sound?

My comments:

Sound, what sound?

I see you point. Years ago, someone asked me a similar question and that is, why sound asleep?

Off the cuff I replied the “sound” refers to the noise one makes while fast asleep. The snorting sound, for instance. And worse, the sound one makes in slumber chewing on one’s teeth.

I was kidding, of course.

Same with fast asleep. How has “fast” or “slow” got to do with it when you’re deep in sleep?

That is right, deep in sleep. Both “sound” and “fast” suggest the same thing – the thoroughness that’s in there – that someone is DEEP in sleep, completely asleep.

Sound as adverb is used in many situations suggesting this thoroughness, a wholesome quality. Sound health, for instance, suggests that someone is completely hale and healthy, with a sound heart and mind free of any injury.

Similarly, we talk of a sound investment in a sound business, and that suggests we’ve done a thorough investigation into the whole thing and it turns out completely viable to make this particular investment.

Or we talk of someone with sound moral values. That points to the fact that this person has integrity, someone who is, again, wholesome in character.

Additionally, we talk of someone giving you sound advice. That means the same thing. The advice is based on thorough investigation and after thoughtful consideration. In other words, it’s good advice. Follow it and you will do no wrong.

Although I cannot be so sure of the last point, that you follow a piece of sound advice and everything will turn out marvelous for you. No, I can never guarantee you that. No one can. After all, as Oscar Wilde points out, all advice is bad advice, or something along this vein. And good advice, he advises, is absolutely fatal.

Anyways, “safe and sound” is a fixed phrase. “Missing student returns home safe” will do but “safe and sound” will do just as nicely, emphasizing that the student is coming home in complete good health and spirits, that he/she has escaped from some potentially dangerous situation unscathed.

And this phrase is cited in the Christian Bible (And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound – King James Version of Luke 15:27), so you know it’s in the language for centuries. It’s in the language for so long that native speakers take it for granted, saying it and repeating it no questions asked.

My point is, if you meet this phrase again and again in print and in conversation, you’ll take it for granted, too, with no questions asked.

Still, it is a good question for a foreigner to ask. And I thank you for that.

Oh, one last thing, use this phrase only in situations where something bad might happen to you and yet you have made a fine escape from any mishap.

In other words, to use another fixed phrase, you’ve got away from it Scott free.

Scott free?

Yeah, well, just might be another nice phrase to write about on another day. Have a nice day for today.



About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.


Damon and Pithiest

A no-brainer?

Ahead of the curve?

Do you second-guess?

(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑:陈丹妮)



















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