Burning the Midnight Oil – Idiom, 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.

Idiomatic phrases are figurative groups of words within a sentence that work with other clauses and phrases to bring further meaning to your message. They owe their meaning to a literal origin, but their use has been applied as metaphors and allusions to create detail and interest.

Burning the midnight oil is an example of an idiom that has been used since the 17th century to describe the keeping of long hours of work through the night. Learn more about the origins and meaning of this term below so you can use it in your speech and writing.

What Does Burning the Midnight Oil Mean?

Burning the Midnight Oil Idiom Origin Meaning

Burning the midnight oil means staying up all night or very late into the night pursuing an activity such as working or studying, not at play or being social. The connotation of burning the midnight oil is of performing labor, not of indulging in frivolous or entertaining pursuits.

For example:

  • During college, she spent the day in class studying and the night burning the midnight oil as a waitress and bartending to pay her tuition.
  • As a journalist, I spend many nights burning the midnight oil to make publication deadlines.
  • If you stopped staying up so late burning the midnight oil, you wouldn’t be so tired; besides, what good is getting that work done if you can’t concentrate the next day?

Why It’s a Bad Idea to Burn the Midnight Oil

Staying awake for extended periods of time is bad for one’s health. Interrupting one’s natural sleep cycle or circadian rhythm can lead to long-term problems with one’s sleep habits. Burning the midnight oil may cause sleep deprivation or result in insomnia over time as the body becomes confused. It is better to have a regular bedtime in all situations to be well-rested, alert, and ready for anything.

Burning the Midnight Oil Origins

Midnight Oil vs Burn the Midnight Oil Ngram
Midnight oil and burn the midnight oil usage trend.

The word midnight is formatted from Old High German mittinaht to mean the middle of the night. Before electricity, to light your way at night meant you had to light an oil lantern or candle.

The first known use of the term midnight oil to mean “late night work” comes from “Emblems,” a book 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.”

Let’s Review

To burn the midnight oil means staying up late or working or studying through the night. It has been referred to figuratively since the 17th century when staying up to work meant burning oil as a source of dependable light.

It’s important not to spend too many days in a row staying up late to work since a lack of sleep can become problematic for your overall health.

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