ENGLISCH/892: Questions to Mrs Gobbledygook (184) To Burn Oil and Candles (SB)


184 Fascinating old idioms

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook

...I have never came upon a more fascinating idiom than

"To burn the midnight oil"

and I would like to know more about its origin and its meaning.

Yours sincerely

Natalia S. (Czech Republic)


Dear Ms S

The expression "to burn the midnight oil" is a fairly old idiom. It originated in a time before electric lighting, because "midnight oil" is the oil in the lamp that one used to burn if he or she were still working at midnight. And the kind of work it refers to is mainly writing, reading or studying of some sort. So, if you say that someone "has been burning the midnight oil" you mean that the person has been working very late. Imagine the following conversation of two colleagues in the office:

"You're looking tired, Peter. Are you all right? You 're not ill or something, are you?"

"Ill? No, nothing like that. In fact nothing that a couple of early nights won't cure. No, the fact of the matter is, that I've been burning the midnight oil rather a lot recently."

Of course, "burning the midnight oil" is no problem if you don't have to get up early the next morning. But if you do go to bed late and get up early, there is another idiom connected with a source of light, that describes that situation. So the conversation between Peter and Jane could go on like this:

"I did tell you that I was writing a novel, didn't I?"

"Yes, you did mention it several times."

"Yes, you see I've got to get it finished by the end of the month. And I'm only half way through it."

"I see."

"In fact, I've no idea, how it's going to end"

"So, you are writing until the small hours and then getting up early, to catch the train into work."


"It sounds to me as though you are burning the candle at both ends."

So Peter is "burning the midnight oil" - working until the small hours, until the early hours of the morning. But he is also "burning the candle at both ends", getting up early in the morning as well as going to bed late.

Now, just the thought of this makes me sleepy, hoping that you get enough sleep ...


Miranda Gobbledygook

7 July 2010