Burning the midnight oil


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Burning the midnight oil'?

To ‘burn the midnight oil’ is to work late into the night. Originally this was by the light of an oil lamp or candle. More recently, the phrase is used figuratively, alluding back its use before electric lighting.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Burning the midnight oil'?

The first person known to have referred to ‘the midnight oil’ in print was the English author Francis Quarles wrote in Emblemes, 1635:

Wee spend our mid-day sweat, or mid-night oyle;
Wee tyre the night in thought; the day in toyle.

At that time there was a verb for working late by candlelight – elucubrate. Henry Cockeram defined that in his The English dictionarie, or an interpreter of hard English words, 1623:

“Elucubrate, to doe a thing by candlelight.”

Clearly, we no longer have much call for that word and it has fallen out of use. Although it is probably some years since anyone needed to do it in reality the phrase ‘burning the midnight oil’ is still in everyday use. Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton released an album called The Right Combination/Burning the Midnight Oil, in 1972.

Trend of burning the midnight oil in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.