We all agree that "moonlighting" denotes having a second job. However, Merriam-Webster and Oxford Advanced Learner's don't define it in exactly the same way.

For example, Merriam-Webster attaches a neutral meaning to it:

moonlight (intransitive verb): to work at a second job in addition to your regular job

OALD, on the other hand, suggests a more negative connotation:

moonlight (intransitive verb): to have a second job that you do secretly, usually without paying tax on the extra money that you earn

I don't know if this is a case of British English vs American English.

So I'd like to ask native speakers of English: Do you attach a neutral or negative meaning to the word? For example, would you say that Madonna moonlights as an actress, without implying that she doesn't pay taxes on the extra money she makes?

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    The OALD definition is definitely how I understand and would use the word. Moonlighting is circumspect and definitely tax-avoiding to me. Feb 16, 2014 at 12:18
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    From the context, clearly not. I'd read that one as a tongue-in-cheek usage, implying that Lochte really doesn't need to work at all ’cause he's already rich, but that he's planning to kind of surreptitiously get into fashion design. It's an odd usage to me, but I guess if some people do use it to mean just ‘secondary job’, that would make more sense. Feb 16, 2014 at 12:34
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    I cannot speak for all of American English speakers, but in the realm of health care providers, this has nothing to do with paying taxes and has no negative connotation. To me it implies providing the same type of professional service outside of a full time employment agreement. This definition may be very specific to U.S. healthcare workers, however. I would not consider a second job, outside the realm of one's usual professional service to be moonlighting. So, neither the Madonna nor Lochte example sound like moonlighting. I can try to find a reference later.
    – Mike
    Feb 16, 2014 at 14:21
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    You don't get many astronomers moonlighting. Feb 16, 2014 at 16:21
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    I thought it simply alluded to the fact that the secondary job was often done at night (hence the term "moonlight").
    – Louel
    Feb 16, 2014 at 16:48

4 Answers 4


I'd tend to agree with Janus's initial comment - to me, moonlighting very often implies working "unofficially" (not necessarily properly regulated, or paying the proper taxes). But in my own field (software development) companies often take a dim view of it for a very different reason. At least one company explicitly banned it in my Contract of Employment, which at the time I thought odd.

I asked my manager why, and he explained that even though I was only "officially" working for the company during office hours, it was quite likely I'd be productively mulling things over at other times. It was a long time ago, but I'm pretty certain he even went so far as to say I could be subconsciously solving work-related problems while doing other things (including dreaming! :)

At the time I thought that was taking things a bit far, but in later life as an independent consultant designing and implementing systems for a range of clients (where I might well "re-sell" the same system after the first client had paid for the development) I found there was a great deal of truth in the concept. At a certain level, the employer is paying for the "whole man", not just worked hours.

That's why I always rejected offers from clients to take me on full-time. Even though they were always offering me more money than I was making at the time, I valued the "future asset" of my "blue-sky" unpaid-for tinkerings more than their here-and-now pay rises.

In short, there are several reasons why "moonlighting" might be seen as undesirable (the worker himself often resents having to do it, since it implies he's not being paid enough in his "day job"). Doubtless many people think it's "neutral", but the few who think it's "positive" (because it shows diligent commitment to the protestant work ethic, duty to provide for one's family, etc.) are almost certainly outweighed by those who don't like it for one reason or another.

Having said all that, I personally think it's almost impossible to separate the connotations of the word itself from those associated with the referent. But given how often moonlighting on the side occurs in Google Books, and the undoubted surreptitious, clandestine connotations of things done on the side (extramarital affairs, for example), I would say on average it's a negative term.


The answer is, "Yes". It can have a negative connotation. It can have a neutral connotation. It can even have a positive connotation.

(Did you have a particular context in mind?)

  • I gave the context in my question above
    – Louel
    Feb 17, 2014 at 10:34

I cannot give concrete examples. However, from a usage sense, I would put "moonlight (v)" in the sarcastically negative category. It may not be negative in a grave/ serious sense. But I doubt that it can be used in a positive sense. If I used it for myself, I would use it as self-deprecatory humour. Definitely cannot use the word in a job cover letter! But at the same time, can't use it to demonstrate spite. (e.g. "David is up to no good; he moonlighted at several places before trying to join our company").

I hope this is helpful, and not misleading. And sorry about that example; not the best, I realize.


The contributions to this page, considered together with the responses to a somewhat different but closely related question, reveal a split of opinion on the meaning of moonlighting. Some people are confident that it means a second job, with no further implications. Others are equally confident that it carries an implication of there being something shady or undesirable about the job, and that the one who moonlights avoids making it widely known, at least in the setting of one's primary job. (The second job may be illegal, or, more likely, it may be that, although legal in itself, it is prohibited by the rules of one's primary employment, or it may be that, although not formally prohibited, it is perceived as incompatible with the dignity of one's primary job.)

On both sides of the dispute one can find people who have proven their competence by other contributions to this site, so neither side can be dismissed out of hand. Dictionary definitions cannot conclusively resolve the dispute because in them one may find something like 'have a second job, typically secretly and at night' (Lexico), which is open to interpretation (how much weight should be given to typically?).

Is there a way of reconciling the two sides to the dispute? A way of doing that was hinted at by AGuest's contribution to this page, and it deserves an elaboration.

The usage of the term has probably developed as follows. Originally it always carried the implication of shadiness, impropriety. Then some people, still having this implication in mind, started using it jokingly in the cases in which there was, in fact, nothing shady about the job. Some people heard such use of the term, but did not understand its joking overtones, and so came to believe that it means simply a second job. At the next stage of the term's development, these people started using it themselves in what they understood to be its meaning, that is, a second job, without any implication of impropriety. At this point, there are probably quite a few people who are using the term that way, but there are probably also quite a few people who are familiar with the original meaning of the term and 'hear' its implications whenever it is used.

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