Running on Fumes – Meaning, Usage and Origin

Have you ever jumped in your car and noticed that your gas light was on and the needle just slightly above the “E.”

Did you suspect that you were running on fumes?

Unless you are one of those people who fill their tank before it gets to the halfway mark, this idiom is probably pretty familiar to you.

So, where did this phrase come from, and why do we even use it?

Like most expressions, their meaning is often altered and even lost in interpretation over time. But, no worries, this article will uncover the origin, a few examples, and the expected usage of the phrase running on fumes, so that you don’t have to.

What does running on fumes mean?

The phrase running on fumes is what some people would call an idiom. Idioms are symbolic words or phrases with a more literal meaning.

Although the original meaning behind running on fumes references a lack of car fuel, it’s often used to describe a certain level of perseverance and grit amid fatigue, frustration, and burnout.

Generally speaking, running on fumes is communicated as a more dire circumstance, depicting images of having only the slightest trace of fuel left. Which in reality, is typically just how we feel.

Idioms are all about the drama; in this case, the purpose is to clearly express how tapped out, and totally exhausted a person can truly be.

Running on fumes and running on empty both came into existence at approximately the same time and are often used interchangeably. But despite a similar timing, running on empty became more popular thanks to a classic Rock and Roll song written by Jackson Browne in the 70s.

“I was always driving around with no gas. I just never bothered to fill up the tank because — how far was it anyway? Just a few blocks.” Jackson Browne said once to the magazine Rolling Stone.

The origin of the phrase

Running on fumes first appeared in conversations around the 1960s, when most middle-class Americans became car owners. The saying running on empty referred to those who procrastinated to the last minute to purchase gas.

Some, like Browne, just refused to stop, while others couldn’t afford the necessary fuel— essentially driving their car on “E” or close to “empty.”

Although it’s not exactly possible to drive your car on fumes, most cars contain about a gallon (3.8 liters) of fuel reserve beyond the “empty” line; warning the driver about low fuel long before the vehicle runs out.

That remaining one to two gallons of fuel left in the tank, is what most refer to as “fumes.”

Examples of running on fumes

The expression running on fumes can be used to describe a shortage on any of the following:

  • Energy
  • Money
  • Support
  • Sleep
  • Resources
  • Enthusiasm
  • Gas

But no matter what you’re referring to as “fumes,” it’s commonly understood that whatever it is, you possess very little of it.

Ten ways to use running on fumes.

  1. I only got four hours of sleep last night, and I am running on fumes already.
  2. I don’t particularly like going to the gas station, so I generally drive around on fumes most of the time—hoping that I make it to the gas station.
  3. This triathlon has me stretching my athletic ability to the max. Unfortunately, this last event has me running on fumes, and I can’t wait until it’s over.
  4. Jim’s family restaurant is a great place to eat but is no longer making any money. Jim has had to take out several loans just to keep the doors open, and at this point, I think his business is running on fumes. Sadly, it may not be around for too much longer.
  5. We were all running on fumes last night, trying to complete our group project. Surprisingly we managed to pull it off at the last minute.
  6. Unfortunately, we are incredibly short-handed, and all of my associates are running on fumes. If we don’t hire some people soon, some of my team may quit.
  7. The couple tried counseling before they called it quits, but they both felt like they were running on fumes and could not continue within the marriage.
  8. I’m sorry that I don’t seem very excited; I’m kind of running on fumes today.
  9. I can’t go out to dinner with you guys tonight; I need to save my money. My checking account is running on fumes, and I need to make it to payday.
  10. You’re probably running on fumes by now.

Synonyms/Phrases Similar to running on fumes

  • Running on E or empty
  • Tapped out
  • Outta gas
  • Running out
  • Almost out
  • Bone dry
  • Below the line
  • Dying
  • I’m weak
  • Dead
  • Bout out

Whether you’re running on fumes or running on empty, either way you could probably use some fuel, or maybe just pick me.

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