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.

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