When I said 'We burnt the midnight oil.', an American guy seemed to have a tough time trying not to laugh. Is this expression so old?

How about 'We did/pulled all-nighters'?

  • The phrase is definitely old... but it's already been several generations since oil lamps were common here in the United States, and yet I still grew up hearing the expression in California in the 70s and 80s. However, in the 80s and 90s there was a very popular Australian band called Midnight Oil (biggest hit was "Beds Are Burning"), and it's entirely possible that your American friend only knew the phrase as the name of the band. He may have laughed because he thought you wanted to set Peter Garrett on fire. – MT_Head Apr 17 '12 at 6:19
  • Interesting. I didn't know about the band. I will ask about that next time I meet the guy. – knsmr Apr 17 '12 at 8:11
  • @MT_Head, isn't Peter Garrett angry enough already? ;) – cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Apr 17 '12 at 15:58
  • @cornbreadninja - How can he sleep? ;-) – MT_Head Apr 17 '12 at 21:37

This phrase is pretty old. And not in very common usage with the youth. Though I might occasionally say "I was burning the midnight oil last night", I would certainly prefer the phrase "I/We pulled and all-nighter". Note the grammar requires the use of an and all-nighter is non plural (feels weird quoting grammar usage for a slang phrase).

The origins of the phrase are not conclusive, but perhaps pertain to poetry uses meaning to need an oil lamp burning past midnight to complete work 1, or the burning of old holy oils the night before new ones are consecrated 2.

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  • Thanks for the clear explanation. How about 'I slept only 9 hours in the last three days. I had to pull all-nighters two nights in a row.'? Should I still use a singular form? – knsmr Apr 17 '12 at 3:37
  • I haven't downvoted your answer, because it is still very good, but I would like to see some references. If you're just giving your opinion, then put it as a comment. If you're providing an answer, then give as definitive an answer as possible. If we're just going on anecdotal evidence, I use the phrase "burn the midnight oil" somewhat frequently. Maybe it's a regional thing? – J D OConal Apr 17 '12 at 5:42
  • @JDOConal Apologies for not referencing the "And not in very common usage with the youth." this is as you say my opinion, and likely to be regional :) However, the phrase is certainly very old, as my first sentence says, both references [1] and [2], which perhaps I should have linked to immediately state this. I figure I answered the direct question with this. Followed by my opinion, subsequently providing some referenced material regarding the etymology. I'll try to be more definitive in future :) – davient Apr 17 '12 at 9:20
  • @knsmr I feel the correct form would be "I had to pull an all-nighter two nights in a row". But thinking further I feel this is more of a personal choice than a grammar rule. "All-Nighters" just sounds wrong to me, and as such even when you could probably write "I had to pull all-nighters all of last week", it feels more natural to me to say "I had to pull an all-nighter every night last week". – davient Apr 17 '12 at 9:30
  • I had to pull two all-nighters in a row. – user16269 Apr 17 '12 at 9:43

Whilst it's true "burn the midnight oil" has been around for at least a century and a half, and it's also true few people alive today will remember oil-lamps being used for lighting, I see no evidence for suggesting it's "old-fashioned". OP probably shouldn't take too much notice of one (young?) American who still has much to learn about his own language...

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There's a faint suggestion that the closely-related burn the candle at both ends is being used less frequently, but I think even there we're talking about trends that are too subtle for Google Books to reliably show. And in that case I happen to know many young people use the expression, while misunderstanding it to mean "both ends of the candle" (it's actually "both ends of the day"). At least with burning the midnight oil the metaphoric allusion is clear and unmistakeable.

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  • It does depend on your audience. Ngrams is based on it's use in print, especially books. It doesn't necessarily match the word's popularity in the readers of a programming blog – mgb Apr 17 '12 at 15:58
  • @mgb: Well yes. If your audience is teenagers who still haven't learnt half the vocabulary/idioms they'll pick up in later decades, you'd probably find a lot of expressions they don't use so often. But I suggest that in the case of midnight oil, for example, teenagers wouldn't have used it so often a century ago either. The issue of younger speakers having (as yet) limited familiarity with idiomatic usage is really peripheral to a general question about the currency of any particular well-established expression. – FumbleFingers Apr 17 '12 at 16:09

Yes, burn the midnight oil is a little old-fashioned and people who don't realise that lamps were once powered by oil possibly wouldn't understand it.

Since "burn the midnight LED backlight LCD panel" hasn't really caught on, "pulled an all-nighter" is probably the most common

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I would still use "burning the midnight oil" just as much or more so than "pulling an all-nighter". I may also say "burning the candle at both ends" which I've always assumed could be attributed to an even older lighting method.

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A reason for the laughter might be that "burning the midnight oil" can be interpreted as smoking a high grade cannabis extract. Depending on what sort of people you hang out with.

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