There's a Portuguese expression that refers to someone who can't sleep at night (for whatever reason: worry, a colicky baby, finishing a project before the deadline, a night-long party, etc) which is

passar a noite em claro or em branco

literally translated as

to spend the night in light or in white though one could also more freely attempt to say 'in blank'.

Is there a similar idiom in English?

I've come across the expression 'lose sleep' in several online dictionaries, but that is usually defined as being associated with worry. 'To have a bad night' and 'to toss and turn' are also not what I'm looking for as they are also associated to worry and difficulty falling asleep, while the Portuguese one simply refers to not sleeping, whether for bad reasons (more common) or for nicer ones.

Example of usage:

I'm really tired. I spent the night awake finishing the history essay.

Let me guess: you spent a night awake again, didn't you? What was it this time?

  • Probably not exactly what you are looking for but the phrase "night owl" springs to mind. Someone who habitually stays up very late often claiming they do their best work at that time. Jul 6, 2019 at 11:51
  • If you Google you'll find many lists of sleep idioms. Until the question is clearer I can't really answer: staying up deliberately has different idioms to staying up accidentally or being unable to sleep despite trying, but I don't know an English idiom covering all of these.
    – Stuart F
    Apr 16, 2022 at 19:59
  • There is a basic difference between idioms for insomnia (e.g., "spent all night staring at the ceiling") and idioms for doing without sleep in order to accomplish a task (e.g., "pulled an all-nighter").
    – Sven Yargs
    Apr 17, 2022 at 0:23

2 Answers 2


burn the midnight oil
: to work or study far into the night
source Merriam Webster

Also from phrases.org.uk ---
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.


Merriam Webster lists White Night as "a sleepless night" - a translation from the French "nuit blanche."

I also like the Free Online dictionary's definition:* 1. A night without sleep. 2. A night without full darkness, as during the summer in high latitudes.

Although the term is much more common in France than in English, the 1985 film "White Nights" popularized it a bit, at least in the US.

And here is an example of usage, from The Guardian: 10 Great White Night Experiences

*Citation: American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright © 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

  • 1
    I think it mght be less common in English (I've never come across it so I'm biased) because it's a homophone for "White Knight" which is either an unexpected saviour, a chess piece or an ineffectual character in Alice Through the Looking Glass. This isn't a problem in French, of course, because the translation of "White Knight" is "Chevalier Blanc" which sounds nothing like "nuit blanche".
    – BoldBen
    Jul 6, 2019 at 14:29

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