Famous Sayings: #13 — ‘Burning Both Ends…’

June 5, 2016

Burning both ends of a candle

burning both ends of the candle, burning the candle at both ends, candle, burning, famous saying, phrase

As I was working on a series of blog posts I plan on releasing sometime this month — either here are elsewhere — I was thinking of using this saying in my text. However, after consulting a quick definition, I realized that it wouldn’t fit at all.

Originally, I had another saying lined up, but this one fits better this week.

(By the way, don’t worry if you’re concerned about Worldwide Candle Lighting Day. It will be on December 11 this year and I am also looking into a saying to commemorate that, too.)

Now, let’s get into the history and meaning of this phrase.

What is the Origin of This Phrase?

My first stop was The Phrase Finder, where Gary Martin talked about two sources of the famous saying. Although he said that the phrase as we know if was coined in the 1700’s, it was derived from French in the 1600’s.

The Phrase can be found in A Dictionaire of the French and English Tongues (1611).  Randle Cotgrave wrote:

Brusler la chandelle par les deux bouts.

That translates to “To burn the candle by the two ends” (Martin).

The phrase can be found in Nathan Bailey’s Dicitonarium Britannicum (1730). By that time, it already had a figurative meaning. In the book, the saying was applied to a married couple:

The Candle burns at both Ends. Said when Husband and Wife are both Spendthrifts.

What Does “Burning Both Ends of the Candle” Mean?

Gary Martin also talked about the original meaning of the phrase. In the 18th century, there was another meaning based on the value of candles.

During the Middle Ages, candles were made out of beeswax, which was stronger than Tallow, but in limited supply. That meant candles were expensive and were more available to the clergy and the wealthy (“History of Candles”).

To come back to Nathan Bailey’s usage of the term, we can come to the original meaning. The married couple was wasteful, so to burn a candle at both ends would be synonymous with wasting money and resources.

Of course, a “spendthrift” is a person who spends foolishly. Here are some definitions from Vocabulary.com.

From the first paragraph:

A spendthrift person is reckless and wasteful with his money.

Here are definitions from the same page:

n. someone who spends money prodigally.”

adj. recklessly wasteful

This is actually supported from the earlier entry in A Dictionaire of the French and English Tongues. I consulted an archive which had various images. The definition included usages of words.

I looked up “chandelle” and found am image of a column from the dictionary here. You can see how the term is used and it pertains to spending money unwisely.

Now, there is a noticeable difference between the way the saying “burning the candle at both ends” would have been used in the 1700’s and the way it is used today.

I looked into the modern-day meaning. From a cursory search on Google, I was greeted with a fast definition and linked to a thread on English Usage & Stack Exchange. Here is part of mplungjan’s answer:

burn the candle at both ends is an idiom meaning to exhaust oneself, esp by being up late and getting up early to work; to work extremely or excessively hard; to work too hard for good health or peace of mind. Worsened by also “partying hard” on top of working hard (but not a necessary component to the definition).

A candle lit at both ends will burn up more than twice as quickly/last less than half as long as one lit on one end alone.

He also linked to The Phrase Finder. The meaning giving at the top of the page is, “To live at a hectic pace.”

Even more, from the first sentence:

Our current understanding of this phrase is of a life lived frenetically and unsustainably – working or enjoying oneself late into the night only to begin again early the next day.

How Does this Idiom Apply Today?


Even though the story behind the old meaning wouldn’t apply today, concerns about money will always apply.

The modern-day meaning has increasing relevance. Every now and then, I come across news articles concerning labor laws and sleep patterns.

It’s important that we have decent work hours — and fair pay. If someone has to work over time, they should be fairly compensated. They also need to have enough time off to recharge.

We also need enough sleep. Eight hours might be enough for adults. People like Arrianna Huffington might need only 6 hours of sleep, not including naps throughout the day.

Whatever we do, it’s important for us to know our limitations and work efficiently, while giving ourselves enough time to rest. Otherwise, we won’t get our best work done and burn ourselves out in the process.

Works Cited

“The History of Candles and Candlemaking.” Candlewic. The Candlewic Company. Web. Retrieved 5 June 2016. <http://www.candlewic.com/service/about-candlewic/the-history-of-candles-and-candlemaking/page.aspx?id=2216>.

Lindahl, Greg. “A Dictionary of French and English Tongues – Page 177, Left Column.” Renaissance Dance. Image. Retrieved 5 June 2016. <http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/cotgrave/search/177l.html>.

Martin, Gary. “Burn the candle at both ends.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 5 June 2016. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/burning-the-candle-at-both-ends.html>.

“spendthrift — Dictionary Definition.” Vocabulary.com. Web. Retrieved 5 June 2016. <https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/spendthrift>.

Various Authors. “What does “burning the candle at both ends” mean? [closed].” English Language & Usage Stack Exchange. 12 Feb 2014. Web. Retrieved 5 June 2016. <http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/151519/what-does-burning-the-candle-at-both-ends-mean>.


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