61. Burning the Candle at Both Ends

November 1, 2020

[Ed.  This was written five years ago in June, and is just now emerging from the file of potential blog items.]

One of the most misunderstood idioms in Ameria is confusing because it was a metaphorical statement mistaken for a literal one.

The expression in question antedates the current age of electricity, when candles are used only for decorative purposes.  Though it is interpreted in this “new light” it actually derives from the days when candles were the only source of light.

My daughter gave me the key to something that has puzzled every child for the last hundred years.  Children are often very amusing to adults when they take things literally that are meant abstractly.  I recall being horrified at age seven when my favorite aunt was tearfully telling my mom that she was about to be fired from her job.  I thought they were going to burn her up!

The other evening I was chatting with my working daughter, the mother of two teen-aged boys, who was yawning with fatigue because she had been getting up before dawn to get the boys lunches and gear ready for school, and then staying up at night to finish up her lawyerly work.

“I’ve just been burning the candle at both ends,” she declared, explaining her inability to keep her eyes open.

And it hit my eighty-one-year-old mind for the very first time.  She was burning the candle at both of the dark ends of the day, not at the ends of the candle.  She was “burning the candle” for the light by which to do her work!

The expression is said to have originated in England, and it is now June and we are approaching the summer solstice.  At this season and in those latitudes working from dark to dark would have indicated an eighteen hour work day!

Searching the internet for the expression reveals images and definitions that indicate that nearly everyone  has first heard of “burning the candle at both ends” when they were so young as to have taken it literally.  Then of course Edna St. Vincent Millay, born at a time when she should have perceived the truer meaning, wrote her famous lines, 

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!

After which anyone would have been blinded to the the literal image by the brilliance of the poetic one.