Running on Fumes

The idiom "running on fumes" means that someone or something is operating with very little resources or energy left.

Running on Fumes: Meaning and Definitions

  • Running on fumes can mean that a person or entity is operating with very little resources or energy left.
  • It can denote a situation where someone is continuing to function despite extreme fatigue or lack of sleep.
  • It’s often used to depict an instance where an organization, such as a business, is continuing to operate despite having nearly exhausted its financial resources.
  • This idiom can be used to illustrate a scenario where a person is continuing with a task or duty despite having almost depleted their emotional or mental energy.
  • It can also represent situations where a machine or device is still operating despite being nearly out of power or fuel.

Running on Fumes Synonyms

  1. Running on empty
  2. Burning the candle at both ends
  3. Running out of steam

Example Sentences

  • The small charity has been running on fumes for months now, but its members are determined not to let it fold.
  • After working for three consecutive days on the project, Mark was visibly running on fumes.
  • The government’s bailout has kept the airline industry running on fumes during the global pandemic.
  • Although my laptop was running on fumes, I managed to send the report just in time.

The Origins and Etymology of Running on Fumes

The idiom “running on fumes” derives its origin from the automotive world.

In this context, a vehicle is said to be “running on fumes” when it has nearly exhausted its fuel supply, and is only operating due to the vapor or ‘fumes’ left in the tank.

This expression, dating back to at least the 1970s, was then extrapolated to depict people or organizations that continue to operate despite exhaustion of their resources.

douglas heingartner editor saywhatyo!
Douglas Heingartner

Douglas Heingartner, the editor of SayWhatYo!, is a journalist based in Amsterdam. He has written about science, technology, and more for publications including The New York Times, The Economist, Wired, the BBC, The Washington Post, New Scientist, The Associated Press, IEEE Spectrum, Quartz, The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Times, Frieze, and others. His Google Scholar profile is here, his LinkedIn profile is here, and his Muck Rack profile is here.