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shameless pleading





Burn the candle at both ends

Lock, stock and balderdash.

Dear Word Detective: I’m a historical re-enactor and often give public demonstrations. For years I’ve shown my matchlock musket and explained that the match was usually lit at both ends to in case one end went out. I’ve told groups that the the phrase, “burning your candle at both ends” comes from this when it was originally “burning your fuse at both ends.” Please let me know if I’m correct and expound on this if possible. — Lloyd.

candle08.pngLloyd, Lloyd, Lloyd. I have one question. Did someone tell you that story, or did you cook it up yourself? If it was a gift, I would disregard any stock tips that person offers you. If you arrived at that explanation yourself, I commend you for your inventiveness, and implore you to stop. All around the world, innocent tourists are eagerly swarming to historical theme parks, roadside museums, ancient ruins and modern reenactments of famous events, only to stagger away hours later in a daze, their tiny, tender minds stuffed full of misinformation in the form of just such colorful anecdotes. Then they go home and write me to ask if “sleep tight” really comes from the days when colonists snoozed lashed to the rafters, or some such nonsense. I say “no,” and bam, I’ve retroactively tarnished their vacation. Everyone loses. And that’s not even counting the death threats I get from the gang at Colonial Williamsburg.

Just kidding about the threats. But the story of “candle” originally being “fuse” isn’t true, although it did prompt me to research matchlock musket technology. The “match,” of course, is really a bit of “match cord,” a slow-burning fuse (originally hemp cord) that was touched to the powder in the “pan” atop a musket, leading to the main charge exploding and the gun firing. Keeping both ends of the match burning makes sense to me, but, then again, I didn’t know a musket from a muskrat an hour ago.

One of the most basic things wrong with that story is that it doesn’t match the sense of “burning the candle at both ends” as the phrase is commonly used. A matchlock “match” lit at both ends would apparently be a good idea, but “to burn the candle at both ends” means to consume one’s energy with excessive work, little sleep, etc., a lifestyle generally considered a bad idea.

The earliest uses of the phrase in English (it was adapted from a French saying in 1611) also make it clear that a candle, at that time an expensive household necessity, was involved. The original meaning, in fact, was specifically financial — a couple in which both the husband and wife were spendthrifts was said to be “burning the candle at both ends,” wasting precious money in two different directions at once. The more general sense of “to burn oneself out through excess work or play,” though now the most common usage, was a later development.

14 comments to Burn the candle at both ends

  • Vicky

    A candle can actually be lighted at both ends and there are old candle holders made to allow the practice. It gives twice the light for half the time. The the candle burns out rapidly, and serves as an illustration both of wastefulness and exhaustion.

  • Hoji Scott

    Remember too, Edna St. Vincent Millay!

  • maria

    That’s interesting – I always thought that ‘at both ends’ referred to both ends of the day, so someone was getting up early and working, and then going on late into the night, requiring a candle to see their work morning and night.
    Seems like other people thought that too, which might explain the current use of the phrase…

  • Edward

    I thought it meant you had worked so long that your candle had burned down to the nub, where now the wic is so short that both ends are being burned at the same time.

  • Lorraine

    Isn’t there a poem that has the phrase “burning her candle at both ends”?

  • Janet

    You’re right Lorraine. It’s by Edna St. Vincent Millay in her poem “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!

    This a great piece.

  • TheBlackHole

    “Burn your candle at both ends” was in Weird Al’s song Dare To Be Stupid.
    “Burn your candle at both ends
    Look a gift horse in the mouth
    Mashed potatoes can be your friends”

  • Candles Scented

    I’ve heard that there is a spray that is supposed to help with the wax burning too fast from a woodwick candle set, is this true?

    [Editor: You mean the one sold at the link I just erased from your post?]

  • GearDog

    I would hope that the author of the original question would know the meaning of another commonly used phrase: “a flash in the pan.” As far as I know, he could accurately use his matchlock musket to explain that phrase to his audiences.

  • amber

    huh … that’s very intersting! also, love the use of the word ‘lash’ in regards to being tied to a rafter!

  • Marilee

    I learned a different use of the term “burning the candle from both ends” from a tour of “Anne Hathaway’s Cottage”, a replica of the home of Shakespear’s wife in England, in Victoria, BC, Canada. It was said that in “Old England” they had candles with wicks at both ends that could be burned vertically, therefore slowly (one wick burning), or turned on its holder horizontally to burn both ends simultaneously. If one entertained guests that you hoped would leave soon, you would “burn the candle from both ends” to burn the candle faster, wasting the precious wax, but thus assuring that your guests would be compelled to leave when the lights went out. And so, the use of the phrase to mean “eager to finish one thing and get on to something more rewarding or productive.” This could be then construed to mean working until all hours of the night and getting up early.

  • Marvin

    I remember reading in some book the saying “Why bother to burn your candle at both ends when you can get a much brighter light with an acetylene torch to the middle” It was meant as an analogy to heavy drug use in the 60s. Does anyone know the source of this?

  • Kit

    Rather than both ends of the day; I prefer to consider burning a candle at both ends of the night would tend to be inefficient, whereas burning the midnight oil remains a virtue.

  • Thomas Paquette

    “Burning the candle at both ends” generally refers to someone who is dedicated to the point of obsession with some problem, but it literally makes no sense, as to burn a candle at both ends seems an idiot’s task. However, adding the phrase “…of the day” restores it to a more direct image of someone who devotes more energy to a problem than the hours of daylight can provide.
    This spontaneously occurred to me several years ago (yes, I shall be batted about the cranium by the Word Detective for such independent, unverifiable insights) while burning the lights at both ends of the day for my career. It seems much more reasonable an image than improbably burning a single candle at both ends of the wick. That just brings to mind a pyromaniac. Or worse.

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