Please consider the following scenario:

  • a) I'm really jealous of him; he's a really successful engineer.
    b) Instead, I'm really proud to have such a colleague! You see! He's been a truly diligent person thoughout his whole academic period and now he's enjoying his life! I knew him since many years ago! I remember well; he really burned the midnight oil to get where his is now!

Does the bold phrase above mean to work hard late into the nights for a long time in modern English? Doesn't is sound old-fashioned to you?

I would appreciate it if you let me know a better idiom in modern language if it's an obsolete type of implying this meaning in English.

2 Answers 2


Burning the midnight oil is still an often-used phrase.

It remains a well understood phrase even though oil lamps are relics of the past.

Just for fun, check your favorite search engine for news articles with this exact phrase. Google News turns up many articles with this phrase in the headline over the past month or so (in 2019).


Burning the midnight oil means to work late into the night. It implies one is working hard. In the context of the scenario, it means he worked a lot, often late into the night, to get to his present position. It is meant as both a compliment, and a comment on the person's character as a hard-working individual.

Burning the midnight oil is still used. There are a few alternatives that are used regularly. To keep one's nose to the grindstone would work in that context in the past tense: He really kept his nose to the grindstone to get where he is now! Another, more modern, and colloquial, expression is to pull an all-nighter, which is mostly used by high school and college students in the context of studying for exams, as in: I pulled an all-nighter to study for that test!

However, an all-nighter implies procrastination or laziness, waiting until the last moment to prepare. It is uncommon to say he really pulled a lot of all-nighters to get where he is, and if used, it would not be a compliment.

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