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. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 16 '14 at 12:18
  • @JanusBahsJacquet But would you say that Ryan Lochte plans to be a tax evader after reading this article, which has the sentence, "He (Lochte) has dreams of MOONLIGHTING as a fashion designer"? usmagazine.com/celebrity-news/news/… – Louel Feb 16 '14 at 12:23
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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 '14 at 14:21
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    You don't get many astronomers moonlighting. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 16 '14 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 '14 at 16:48

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.

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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?)

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  • I gave the context in my question above – Louel Feb 17 '14 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.

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