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. 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.

Examples

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)