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Burning the midnight oil

  • Burning the midnight oil is an idiom that dates back at least to the 1600s. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. An idiom can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker.  We will examine the definition of the phrase burning the midnight oil, where it came from and some examples of its use in sentences.


     

    Burning the midnight oil means to stay up all night or very late into the night pursuing an activity such as working or studying. The connotation of burning the midnight oil is of performing labor, not of indulging in frivolous or entertaining pursuits. Scientists have shown that it is generally a mistake to stay up all night, burning the midnight oil. Staying awake for extended periods of time is bad for one’s health, and yields diminishing results. Some people who are on a deadline stay up all night by using stimulants. Coffee or an energy drink with enormous amounts of caffeine may make one feel energized for a short period of time, as well as a cold shower. However, interrupting one’s natural sleep cycle or circadian rhythm can lead to long-term problems with one’s sleep habits. Being up all night, resulting in a lack of sleep, not only results in feeling tired or drowsy and an inability to wake up and stay awake, it causes a shift in mood, distraction, inability to concentrate and may result in becoming sick. Burning the midnight oil, causing sleep deprivation, may result in insomnia or sleeplessness over time, as the body becomes confused. Many people begin burning the midnight oil because they are cramming for exams. This is called pulling an all-nighter. It is better to form study habits they allow one to have a regular bedtime in all situations, with a sufficient number of hours of sleep, in order to be well rested, alert and ready for anything. The idiom burn the midnight oil comes from the fact that until the advent of gas lighting, candles and oil lamps were used to light the night. The oldest known used of the term midnight oil comes from the work Emblemes, written by Francis Quarles in 1635: “Wee spend our mid-day sweat, or mid-night oyle; Wee tyre the night in thought; the day in toyle.” Related phrases are burn the midnight oil, burns the midnight oil, burned the midnight oil.

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    Examples

    It works well because everyone loves an underdog, and Ally is the underdog, working hard at her restaurant job while burning the midnight oil to pursue her dream to be a performer. (The Capital Journal)

    Working in my hotel room in Sioux Falls, S.D. — burning the midnight oil to get work done after a late night at South Dakota State’s gorgeous Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium — I was trying to think of ISU losses that made a positive impact for a team down the line. Not just in football, but in any sport. (The Terre Haute Tribune Star)

    “There were some periods when they finished their exams before me, and I was still burning the midnight oil,” she said with a laugh. (The Straits Times)


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