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I'm familiar with the idiom "burning the candle at both ends" to mean "to have expended oneself, in particular by staying up very very late". With this idiom I usually think of someone who has either been up all night finishing some important work, or conversely enjoying a social life that keeps them awake until the early hours. However, the other day my Gran used the expression to mean being unfaithful in a relationship, as in:

He's been burning the candle at both ends you know? Oh yes, and if his wife finds out there'll be hell to pay!

I thought it quite a funny way to describe someone cheating, but mainly wrote it off as one of those odd things my Gran says. However, Googling the idiom and the word "unfaithful" I actually found a connection. I found a paper about extramarital sex and marriage disruption with the idiom in its title, as well what looks like an advice blog which warns "Burning the candle at both ends is dangerous." with reference to the act of cheating.

I dug a bit further into the origin and usage of the phrase, but I couldn't find anything which gives a definition including infidelity. The original definition seems to have been more about wasting money, candles being expensive and burning them at both ends being a way to use them faster and waste them. Over time this then morphed into the current well-known meaning, that by "burning the candle at both ends" you were rapidly spending yourself rather than rapidly spending money, and consequently you're now exhausted.

Does anyone know when the idiom "burning the candle at both ends" came to include a meaning of being unfaithful in a relationship? Or is this a natural expansion of the primary meaning of the idiom and isn't a special case?

I have found further uses of the phrase specifically relating to having and affair/cheating here, here, and here. I admit it's not a very common phrase for this sort of behaviour, but it does seem to be in use.

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    OED has the phrase, but (despite the entry being updated as late as March 2021), only has it in the "wasting money" definition, not even in the sense of being active too long at both ends of the day, which seems quite common. Nothing about infidelity at all. There may be scope for suggesting an update!
    – Andrew Leach
    May 2 at 12:02
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    I would say it's sort of a pun on the metaphor.
    – Hot Licks
    May 2 at 12:05
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    Not even UD has picked up on this one, but the NIH article adds serious support for the broadened usage. May 2 at 14:09
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    I've never heard this usage, so it isn't that surprising that it isn't in dictionaries. May 2 at 23:19
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    "go to bed late and get up early, especially to get work done" has nothing to do with cheating. Either your grandmother is mistaken as to it's meaning, or her region has developed their own meaning for the idiom.
    – RonJohn
    May 3 at 20:24
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Too long for a comment, but not much of an answer: The origin of the phrase is Edna St. Vincent Millay's "First Fig"

"My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends
- It gives a lovely light."

One analysis of this short poem comments:

...there are various things that the candle can symbolize. It’s very likely though that this poem is concerned, at least in part, with Millay’s own sexuality

So there's some support for the notion mentioned in the Q

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  • This certainly seems like a good case for the inspiration behind the idiom referencing a person's sexual behaviour, so +1 for that. A source attributing the poem to the secondary meaning of the idiom is what would make this an answer I would accept, but it's really interesting to see how this poem is potentially the inspiration for the meaning my Gran has taken.
    – Nemon27
    May 2 at 19:29
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    I got curious and asked about this on Literature SE, to find out more about the various possible interpretations of this poem. May 3 at 14:00
  • @Randal'Thor - Millay's personal life offers context for the short extract I posted, which continues : ...sexuality and her love for both men and women.. And FWIW, I've always thought that her first line was deliberately mis-cast, since metrically it would be better rendered as I burn my candle at both ends. Just another mystery.
    – Jim Mack
    May 3 at 17:44
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I've always taken that alternate meaning of burning the candle at both ends to mean the person doing so is two-timing, which means cheating or usually means cheating, but is nonetheless an important distinction because of its word choice.

With "two-timing" in mind, burning the candle at both ends' second meaning became inevitable. It contains an overt phallic symbol (a penis-shaped object) that is burning (a word also used for sexual desire) with two flames (a word also used for "lover," so "two lovers"), each literally (and figuratively) lighting upon and licking at each end of that rigid, horizontal, burning phallic symbol (or phallus), in an analogy that refers to late nights and lots of work, the two principal requirements and struggles of two-timing since even just one relationship requires lots of work and late nights, so twice that! With all of that going on, it's very easy to see how the second meaning evolved. In fact, with how much we humans have sex on the brain, it would be hard to see how that second meaning wouldn't evolve.

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    Two-timing, yes! This is the perfect phrase to describe the other phrase haha! What I'm really after is when this meaning became associated with the idiom, but I'm struggling to find it even after scrolling through a whole lot of Google Ngram. Your reasoning is sound so +1 but it's an example of this second meaning's origin that would nail an answer.
    – Nemon27
    May 2 at 19:25
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    "dipping the wick" is another candle-related sex metaphor, although it relates to creating the candle instead of using it, so I don't think mixing them would work well.
    – Bobson
    May 3 at 17:29
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I have never encountered the expression in the context of sexual infidelity and if so it possibly stems from some misunderstanding of the phrase. I think it originally applied to someone who rose early and worked late hence burned the candle at both ends of the day. That is to light a dark morning and the the darkness of the evening.

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