I was humming the folksong "I've Been Working on the Railroad" when I hit this phrase... What's its origin?

I feel that livelong establishes that the day may feel like an eternity. But I noticed that the adjective doesn't seem to be used in positive circumstances. That makes my ear want to supplant it with goddamn: I've been working on the railroad, all the goddamn day. Is there any truth here?

  • Exactly. He's been working on the railroad for part of one day, but it feels like much, much longer than that. Nov 11, 2015 at 8:23
  • Just as a side note, the italian equivalent is "all the holy day" and the connotation is negative despite the use of the term "holy".
    – user66974
    Nov 11, 2015 at 9:13
  • 2
    It's not unlikely that it's a minced oath.
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 11, 2015 at 12:42
  • 1
    This line appears almost verbatim in Edmund Spenser's wedding poem "Epithalamion" from 1594: "Make feast therefore now all this live long day, \ This day for ever to me holy is.". Clearly it's a joyously long day, not an interminable one. The answer below gives more detail on the origin. The use in the folk song is certainly more sly.
    – supergra
    Jun 22, 2019 at 16:45

3 Answers 3


All the livelong day: the expression is actually generally used with a negative connotation, to refer to a period of time that is too long, too tiring:

  • all day long. Well, of course you get to feeling stiff, sitting in front of a computer all the livelong day. I'd go crazy if I had to stay at home all the livelong day.

(McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs)

According to the Phrase Finder the folksong "I've Been Working on the Railroad"(1936) you cite may be responsible for its origin, but the expression was actually used well before that date and the term 'livelong' has a complex and ancient origin.

The following source says that the origin of the adjective"lifelong" is quite old and it originally meant, "dear, beloved". Only in the late 18th century its meaning changes to "lifetime, lifelong" probably as a result of a misanalysys of the word's origin:


  • Livelong is not a common adjective. Its use, for the most part, is restricted to one expression, all the livelong day, although as late as the nineteenth century the livelong night was also common. In these expressions the word is simply an intensified version of the adjective long. But why live-? We don’t use that word to intensify anything else.

    • Well, the word goes back to the first half of the fifteenth century. Livelong is first recorded in Henry Lovelich’s poem The History of the Holy Grail, found in the manuscript Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 80: And thus vppon the yl stood Nasciens there Al the live long day In this Manere. (And thus upon the hill stood the nations there all the livelong day in this manere.
  • and

    • Al that leve longe Nyht Into the Se he loked forth Ryht (All that livelong night he looked directly into the sea.)
  • Lovelich probably penned the poem around 1410. The manuscript dates from before 1450. And the date provides us with a clue for why live- is used in the word.

  • The live- in livelong does not refer to living. Instead, it’s from the Old English leof, meaning dear, beloved. It shares a common Germanic root with the Old English lufu, or love.

  • There is a less common use of livelong to mean for a lifetime or lifelong. This sense appears in the late eighteenth century and would appear to be the result of a misanalysis of the word’s origin.


Ngram, all the livelong day can be found from the late 18th century.

  • 1786 Burns Twa Dogs 295 Or lee-lang nights, wi crabbit leuks, Pore owre the devil's pictur'd beuks.

  • 1787 F. Burney Diary June, This was the last day of freedom for the whole livelong summer.

  • 1806 J. Grahame Birds Scot. 77 The live long summer day She at the house end sits.

  • 1829 Hogg Sheph. Cal. I. 25 He watched there the lee-lang night.
  • 1847 Emerson Poems, Good-bye Wks. (Bohn) I. 416 Where arches green, the livelong day, Echo the blackbird's roundelay.
  • 1870 Bryant Iliad I. ii. 35 It ill becomes a chief To sleep the livelong night

In addition to the excellent answer by user66974, I would like to point out that the corresponding German idiom is 'lieber langer Tag' (e.g.: Er arbeitete den lieben langen Tag).

This seems to agree to the point that live- in this expression is derived from leof.

  • This answer is essentially useless to 90% of the members of this community  because you don’t give the literal translation of any of the German words you mention. Feb 8, 2018 at 15:22

The expression "all the livelong day" can be found as early as 1579, when it appeared in Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives, in the chapter on the "Life of Romulus" (you can find this in any Early English Books Online database):

These poore maydes toyled at it all the liue longe daye.

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