Burning the Candle at Both Ends – Origin & Meaning

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

The English language becomes more interesting when you incorporate figurative words and phrases. Idioms are figurative incorporations in speech and writing that generally originated with literal definitions but, through the years, took on different meanings.

To burn the candle at both ends has always had a strong metaphorical definition to infer waste. It originated in 17th-century France and is still a popularly used idiomatic phrase. Let’s learn about the history behind this phrase and how to use it.

What Does It Mean to Burn the Candle at Both Ends?

Burning the Candle at Both Ends Origin Meaning

To burn the candle at both ends means to exhaust oneself by working too much, which infers you are going to bed late and getting up early. When one burns the candle at both ends, they are living at a frenetic pace that cannot be sustained for long.

The modern use is tied to the understanding that burning a candle at both ends is wasteful, and to do so wastes your energy over time.

For example:

  • Being a single parent is hard, and you’ll find yourself burning the candle at both ends most of the time.
  • During her years at university, she burned the candle at both ends, so she took a year off after graduation to travel and relax.
  • Having taken on too much work, she found herself burning the candle at both ends more days than not.

However, the idiom’s meaning didn’t always mean what it means today.

Burning the Candle at Both Ends Origins

The term burn the candle at both ends is derived from the French phrase “Brusler la chandelle par les deux bouts,” published in “A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues” in 1611.

Coined around the beginning of the seventeenth century, the early meaning of burn the candle at both ends was to be a spendthrift, to be wasteful. Candles were expensive, and burning both ends of a candle used it up much faster.

This figurative use to infer waste or to consume prodigiously was defined in Nathan Bailey’s book “Dictionarium Britannicum” published in 1730:

“The Candle burns at both Ends. Said when Husband and Wife are both Spendthrifts.”

Burning Candle at Both Ends Ngram
Modern Use of Burning the Candle at Both Ends

Today, the “both ends” of the candle are metaphorical for the two ends of a day: morning and night. To burn both ends creates exhaustion and waste over time. This modern explanation was coined by the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay in 1920 in her poem “First Fig”:

“My candle burns at both ends; / It will not last the night; / But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends— / It gives a lovely light!”

Let’s Review

Burning a candle at both ends has always had a figurative relation to use. At first, it was used to imply waste due to a candle’s literal waste if burned on both ends. By the 18th century, it inferred financial waste within a household by both a husband and wife.

Today, its modern use is related to working at both ends of the day: morning and night. It explains the exhaustion and waste working in such a manner creates.