Running on empty and running on fumes

Running on empty and running on fumes are idioms that were first seen in the mid-twentieth century. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery, 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. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as beat around the bush, cut the mustard, let the cat out of the bag, hit the sack, ankle biter, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, 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 phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the meaning of the idioms running on empty and running on fumes, where they came from and some examples of their use in sentences.

Running on empty means to keep going even though one is out of energy, enthusiasm, money, support, or other resources. One may be said to be running on empty for many reasons, such as if one is out of energy because of lack of sleep, or if one is out of money to use as capital when starting a business. The idiom running on empty came into use in the 1960s, when most of the American middle class became car owners and took trips for pleasure. The phrase running on empty refers to driving a car even though the fuel indicator is pointed to “E” for “empty”. Most cars, especially at that time, were calibrated to still contain a gallon or two of fuel in the tank when the indicator pointed to empty.

Running on fumes also means to keep going even though one is out of energy, enthusiasm, money, support or resources. Generally, running on fumes is a more dire circumstance than running on empty, as it conjures the image of only the barest trace of gasoline being left in the tank. The two terms came into use at roughly the same time and for the same reason. The phrase running on empty is a somewhat more popular phrase than running on fumes, probably due to an extremely popular song of the same name written by Jackson Browne in the mid-1970s.


But they are also running on empty and desperately need an injection of quality and freshness. (The Herald Scotland)

“You’ll run better and burn more calories than if you were running on empty.” (Runner’s World Magazine)

There were times in my life in growing my business and managing my family that I was running on fumes.  (Forbes Magazine)

The Brewers took advantage of a team running on fumes Monday night.  (The Journal Sentinel)

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