Burning the Midnight Oil - Meaning, Origin and Usage

Do you have a project deadline coming up tomorrow, and you’re behind on the work? It looks like you’ll be “burning the midnight oil” to finish in time for your meeting tomorrow.

Burning the midnight oil is a popular idiom used in the western world, from America to Europe. You could use it in a response as an excuse for feeling tired or when telling someone about your plans for the evening. This post unpacks the meaning, origin, and use cases of the idiom.

Burning the Midnight Oil Idiom Meaning

Burning the midnight oil” is an idiom referring to someone staying up late into the night to complete work. It’s a popular phrase used in modern society, and you probably hear it mentioned in conversation from time to time.

The phrase refers to something occasional, emphasizing effort in yourself or another person’s dedication to achieving a goal or completing a task. Usually, the term has a positive connotation, showing another person that you are putting in extra effort, or you could use it to compliment someone else’s actions.

Burning the Midnight Oil Example Usage

“Tom was up late last night burning the midnight oil. Do you know if he finished the project?”

“Look up at the windows of that building at 3 am, and you’ll only see two lights on. Those people are burning the midnight oil.”

“We have to burn the midnight oil tonight to meet that deadline in the morning.”

“The top performers in the company burn the midnight oil a few times a month to stay ahead of the pack.”

“Are you willing to keep burning the midnight oil to get ahead in your career?”

“Rob was burning the midnight oil last night; his boss told him he needs to put in more effort if he wants to make partner at the firm.”

Burning the Midnight Oil Idiom Origin

Francis Quarles was the first to use the phrase in his literary work. Francis initially used the phrase as a synonym to ‘elucubrate.’

The original meaning of the word is “to work by candlelight.” Burning the midnight oil was an English phrase used to describe someone’s commitment to working through the night because, in those times, candles and lamps would run on oil.

Elucubrate” received the definition of doing activities by candlelight in 1623. While modern society rarely uses candlelight to do work, the phrase is still in use today to reference staying up into the night to work.

The phrase also features in pop culture, with Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner releasing the album “The Right Combination/Burning the Midnight Oil” back in 1972.

Phrases Similar to Burning the Midnight Oil

  • At it all night.
  • Sleep when you’re dead.
  • Never give up.

Phrases Opposite to Burning the Midnight Oil

  • Turning in early.
  • Not bothering to put in the effort.
  • Giving up early.

What is the Correct Saying?

  • Burning the midnight oil.
  • Burn the midnight oil.

Ways People May Say this Burning the Midnight Oil Incorrectly

Some people may use the phrase to describe the act of staying up late. To “burn the midnight oil” doesn’t mean going to bed at midnight or 1 am; it means staying up all night. Using the phrase to describe the actions of inanimate objects would also be the incorrect use of the words.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Burning the Midnight Oil

You can use “burn the midnight oil” in social and professional settings. You can also use it to refer to another person’s actions or yours. You would use the phrase to compliment someone, remarking on their efforts and dedication to a task or work.

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