I thought I knew something about this phrase, but I was wrong. I expected to read that it began as “no rest for the weary” and the term “wicked” had been added, perhaps for humor. I think of the phrase as meaning “I can’t get a break” with the speaker referring ironically to themselves.
Wikipedia says the wicked were, indeed, the original subjects and the phrase comes from a common source, the Bible:
- Isaiah 48:22 “There is no peace,” says the Lord, “for the wicked.”
- Isaiah 57:20 “But the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt.”
- Isaiah 57:21 “There is no peace,” says my God, “to the wicked.”
Phrase Finder states the phrase “was first printed in English in Miles Coverdale’s Bible, 1535… Its use in a figurative secular sense became much more common in the 1930s and it is now usually used for mild comic effect.” Wikipedia lists many uses of the phrase in popular entertainments – I was reminded of it by a character on TV last night.
Wordcourt notes that the common usage simplifies the biblical quote. “At any rate, ‘no rest for the wicked’ has been a set phrase at least since 1876, when it appeared in the caption of a cartoon on the cover of an issue of Harper’s Weekly. As for ‘no rest for the weary,’ superficially it makes more sense, don’t you think? This idea too, though not the exact wording, can be found in the Bible, in the Book of Lamentations: ‘Those who pursue us are at our heels; we are weary and find no rest.'” So maybe my memory isn’t so bad after all.