Here I am, elucubrating again. If you want to set the world on fire, sometimes you have to burn the midnight oil.

Allow me to elucidate. It is late, and I am creating. By the glow of lamps – OK, of electric lights and also of my laptop screen – I am researching and writing yet another work of lit literature. (And, as brevity is the soul of wit, and the hour is not getting any earlier, I intend to make this one more soulful and witty than most, although this parenthesis is not helping the cause.)

You may be familiar with the verb lucubrate or its noun form lucubration. It is often used to refer to strenuous learnedness, overdone erudition, the output of late-night sweating over inkhorn terms by the glow of a lamp. Well, elucubrate is about the same kind of thing – working late by lamp light – but perhaps with less implied derision. It has escaped the accumulated sootiness of snootiness through the simple expedient of not being used. Both lucubrate and elucubrate appeared in the early 1600s, but lucubrate has stayed in occasional use – mainly as a pointedly learnèd word (used to scorn pointed learnedness) – while elucubrate has generally not. But oh well. Here it is, come to light once more.

The source of both words is Latin lucubro, which means ‘I work by lamplight (or candlelight)’ and traces back to lux ‘light’ and luceo ‘I am light; I illuminate’. It was clearly a common enough activity in ancient Rome that they had a word for it. In fact, they had more than one, because they also had elucubro. The distinction between the two words is in the e-, which adds the sense of expenditure (it means, basically, ‘out’). So it’s not just that you work by light; it’s that you use up the light – or its fuel. Or your own fuel, until you burn yourself out. You burn the midnight oil, so to speak. In fact, ‘burn the midnight oil’ shows up in the definition of elucubrate.

Of course, we mostly don’t literally burn oil in our houses now for light. But that doesn’t mean we don’t burn it at all – the electricity powering your lights and your laptop may be coming from combustion of coal or even oil. And while, as Edna St. Vincent Millay knew, a candle that burns at both ends (so to speak) “gives a lovely light,” in the long run of elucubration we may not be able to sleep even when we want to, if we’ve set the world on fire…

One response to “elucubrate

  1. The parenthesis comment made me laugh.

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