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catch (one) napping
1. Literally, to discover that one is sleeping when one is not supposed to be. A: "Why was Bill fired?" B: "I heard they caught him napping at his at his desk."
2. By extension, to exploit or capitalize on one's inattention. We were able to sneak into the building because we caught the security guard napping. I scored a goal after I caught their defenseman napping.
Farlex Dictionary of Idioms. © 2015 Farlex, Inc, all rights reserved.
catch someone nappingand catch someone off balance; catch someone up short
to come upon someone who is unprepared; to surprise someone. (See also asleep at the switch.) The enemy soldiers caught our army napping. The thieves caught the security guard napping. I didn't expect you so soon. You caught me off balance. The teacher asked a trick question and caught me up short. The robbers caught Ann off balance and stole her purse.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
Surprise, take unawares. This term is often used in the passive, as in The United States was really caught napping the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. It originated in the mid-1500s as to be taken napping. Also see under off guard.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. Copyright © 2003, 1997 by The Christine Ammer 1992 Trust. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
napping, to be caught/catch
To be surprised off guard, taken unawares. This term began life in the sixteenth century as to be taken napping. “Take Nappynge as Mosse toke his Meare” was the title of a 1569 ballad. The term was included in John Ray’s proverb collection of 1670, in which Ray commented, “Who this Moss was is not very material to know. I suppose some such man might find his mare dead, and taking her to be only asleep, might say, ‘Have I caught you napping?’” Yet Shakespeare and other sixteenth-century writers used the phrase in the modern sense of taking someone unawares; “Nay, I have ta’en you napping, gentle love,” Tranio says to Bianca (The Taming of the Shrew, 4.2).
The Dictionary of Clichés by Christine Ammer Copyright © 2013 by Christine Ammer