All the words or phrases I know for people who stay up at night merely describe the habit of not sleeping (e.g.: a night owl or insomniac)

I am looking for a word or phrase with an emphasis on working hard at night. These people work are different from insomniacs because they have no problem sleeping but they refuse sleep to work. They are different from night owl because they wake up early in the morning.

To give more context, suppose a nurse with kids who has a normal day life like most people and takes care of the kids but also works most nights in a hospital.

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    Are you looking for a description of the person or their activity? The question in the title asks for a noun that applies to the person but, at the time of writing of this comment, the two highest voted answers give verb phrases describing the activity ("to burn the candle at both ends" and "to burn the midnight oil"). – David Richerby Nov 13 '14 at 17:26
  • I was looking for a noun, adjective, or verb to describe the person or the activity. Sorry that the question's title is misleading. – Always Asking Nov 13 '14 at 17:30
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    If they keep up their "not sleeping" habits long enough, the term for such people will be the late [insert name here]. – Marthaª Nov 13 '14 at 18:20
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    I think you're looking for engineer or EECS student. – Snakes and Coffee Nov 14 '14 at 3:37
  • @SnakesandCoffee haha. You are right. The person I want to describe is an computer science student in grad school. – Always Asking Nov 14 '14 at 5:30

13 Answers 13


I would say this person is "burning the midnight oil". This shows that they are working hard, because we think of machines as things that burn oil. It also relates to the "late at night" requirement for obvious reasons.

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    When you are burning the midnight oil, you are burning it in a lamp, so you can read, write, and study. – Malvolio Nov 13 '14 at 16:48
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    Though, "burning the midnight oil" generally doesn't imply any particular regularity. It certainly doesn't mean I have a day job and a night job - it usually just means I have a day job and, for whatever reason, this particular night I stayed up late doing it. – neminem Nov 13 '14 at 17:04
  • You can burn the midnight oil and be a total slacker during the day, though so it may fulfill a "working at night" requirement, you don't get a sense that the person is productive day and night. – Kristina Lopez Nov 14 '14 at 20:41
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    The asker wanted emphasis on the fact that she lives normally by day, but is busy at night. No need to imply daytime work. "Though her days were mostly relaxed, she was constantly burning the midnight oil." – user97641 Nov 14 '14 at 21:30
  • Actually, per the OP, his example is a nurse with kids which sounds more like someone who is busy during the day as well as at night (working at the hospital) so I'm not sure how your quote in the comment applies... – Kristina Lopez Nov 15 '14 at 12:45

Someone who lives a life as you described can be said to "burn the candle at both ends" in that they exhaust their resources twice as fast, as you can imagine lighting both ends of a candle simultaneously would do.

There are several good answers and links related exactly to this phrase in this ELU question: What does "burning the candle at both ends" mean?

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    This phrase is not exclusive to working at night, someone who sleeps at night but still works twice as hard in the day is also "burning the candle at both ends" – David Wilkins Nov 13 '14 at 19:07
  • This was not the original meaning. The OED gives the following: ... to consume or waste in two directions at once. Cf. Cotgrave ‘Brusler la chandelle par lex deux bouts’.) 1736 N. Bailey et al. Dict. Britannicum (ed. 2), The Candle burns at both Ends. Said when Husband and Wife are both Spendthrifts. 1753 J. Hanway Hist. Acct. Brit... Apt to light their candle at both ends; ...they are apt to consume too much, and work too little. 1848 C. Kingsley Saint's Trag. iii. i. 140 To double all your griefs, and burn life's candle, As village gossips say, at either end. Cfwd – WS2 Nov 13 '14 at 20:55
  • BFwd The Free (Online) Dictionary does give the modern meaning, but the idea of 'both ends' is that one is burned in the day and the other at night - according to them. – WS2 Nov 13 '14 at 20:57

There is an actual word that literally means "to study with a lamplight" but in usage means "to study very hard", which is elucubrate (elucubration, elucubrator, etc.). Not a very popular one mind you, but it's in the OED.

  • Doesn't elucubrate mostly refer to creating literary work? Nonetheless, I like this word. – Always Asking Nov 13 '14 at 17:20
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    Well, it was coined for all those medieval monks who spent their entire lifetimes just transcribing books (it was actually a kind of admonishment: stop working so hard, you elucubrator!), so it's more closely related to writing at night than just generally "working." – Kyle Hale Nov 13 '14 at 18:00
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    There's also lucubrate, which has the same meaning (depending, of course, which dictionary you choose). – Jasper Locke Nov 19 '14 at 20:11

I'm not sure if this fits exactly, but workaholic is someone who works too much. I guess it could apply to someone who would rather work than sleep.


You might consider lychnobite to define this person. But you can be a lazy lychnobite too. So you would describe as a hard-working lychnobite.

a person who works or labors at night and sleeps during the day.

From Ancient Greek λύχνος (lúkhnos, “lamp”) and βίος (bíos, “life”).


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    lychnobite does not stress that the person works hard at night. It also implies that the person sleeps during the day, which is not what I am looking for. – Always Asking Nov 13 '14 at 17:40
  • @AlwaysAsking: When is the person sleeping then? – 0.. Nov 13 '14 at 18:54
  • Good point. Does lychnobite imply the person gets enough sleep? I was looking for a word that shows the person cannot get enough sleep because he or she works hard at night. – Always Asking Nov 13 '14 at 21:54
  • @AlwaysAsking: You wanted a word to define the person. This is the closest it can get. You can imply what you want in the right context. – 0.. Nov 14 '14 at 16:06

I would use the word "moonlighter."

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    I like this answer because 1) it is not a formal word 2) I can use the verb form of it. E.g.: She moonlights in a hospital as a nurse. – Always Asking Nov 14 '14 at 5:33
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    "Moonlighting" suggests the night-time work is secretive. In many cases it is used to describe a secondary job done at night, perhaps in violation of your contract with your day-time job. – Duncan Jones Nov 14 '14 at 9:52
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    @Duncan I disagree. In fact, only one of the definitions in this list includes that implication: onelook.com/?w=moonlighter&ls=a – DeeDee Nov 14 '14 at 19:03
  • In an episode of Scrubs (or something like that) I remember the nurses being strictly forbidden from moonlighting, which implied getting a second job. So the nurses had to moonlight in secret. – Nick Pickering Nov 16 '14 at 17:57

Someone who works productively at night could also be considered a "cobbler's elf". The name is taken from an old fairy tale.


'A night rider' or 'A night pecker' may be a suitable expression for the idea.

  • Or night worker, night ghost. – rogermue Nov 14 '14 at 6:46

I have heard the term, "vampire" used to describe people like this. Namely the behavior of being active late at night/early into the morning, but usually in reference to a group of people or a family in a home, ie, "That family is a bunch of vampires" -- meaning they are always up very late in the house with the lights on, can be seen as active and are often loud. This might not connote a preference for work, instead of sleep, but I think it can certainly convey preferring activity instead of sleeping.

  • Yup, I guess when all else fails vampire or zombie will do. :) Ha, I'm joking. But I actually did think of vampire while conidering the question. – pazzo Nov 14 '14 at 20:41

Until I got to your example at the end I thought you were describing someone who does (or feels that they do) their best and most productive work during the still of the night, in which case I think they’d best be described by the term that you preclude (night owl), but your example made me think first of Kristina Lopez’s excellent answer (burn[ing] the candle at both ends), and then perhaps of someone who’s probably “running on fumes.”

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    "Running on fumes" implies being tired. I don't want to give the connotation of being tired. – Always Asking Nov 13 '14 at 17:21
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    if the person does this regularly, they will be tired. – user428517 Nov 13 '14 at 20:55
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    @sgroves You are right. Running on fumes is a perfect phrase when you want to communicate that the person is tired. But I just want to say that the person works very hard. Maybe he or she is tired but that is irrelevant in my context. He or she could be even happy because a good outcome is coming out of their work. – Always Asking Nov 13 '14 at 21:59

Helps if you get some makeup buzz during the day. For night owl and night rider who has to come into office, yes, you'd be unproductive, feel like a zombia and end up having eye handles and burning your candles.


The phrase you are looking for is "Evening chronotype". Being a type of person who is not a "Morning chronotype".


Within the circles of my own career we have referred to such a person as a "Work-a-holic" in a slang kind of way.

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