night owl

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See also: night-owl



The Eurasian eagle owl (Bubo bubo; sense 1) is a night owl as it is largely nocturnal
The night owl (sense 3) is a water-filled musical instrument which imitates an owl’s hoot

From night + owl,[1] from the fact that the bird is active at night.



night owl (plural night owls)

  1. (literally) An owl (order Strigiformes) that is nocturnal.
    • c. 1591–1592, William Shakespeare, “The Third Part of Henry the Sixt, []”, in Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies [] (First Folio), London: [] Isaac Iaggard, and Ed[ward] Blount, published 1623, OCLC 606515358, [Act II, scene i], page 153, column 1:
      Their Weapons like to Lightning, came and went: / Our Souldiers like the Night-Owles lazie flight, / Or like a lazie Threſher with a Flaile, / Fell gently downe, as if they ſtrucke their Friends.
    • 1595 December 9 (first known performance), [William Shakespeare], The Tragedie of King Richard the Second. [] (First Quarto), London: [] Valentine Simmes for Androw Wise, [], published 1597, OCLC 213833262, [Act III, scene iii]:
      For nightowles ſhreeke where mounting larkes ſhould ſing.
    • 1783, Ben Jonson; [Francis Godolphin Waldron], The Sad Shepherd: Or, A Tale of Robin Hood, a Fragment, [...] With a Continuation, Notes, and an Appendix, London: Printed for J[ohn] Nichols, []; and sold by C[harles] Dilly, [], OCLC 1135611056, Act V, page 98:
      A night owl beat her pinions 'gainſt my head, / 'Till o' the ground I fell, wi' fright near dead!
    • 1832, Jedadiah Cleishbotham [pseudonym; Walter Scott], chapter VIII, in Tales of My Landlord, Fourth and Last Series. [], volume IV (Castle Dangerous), Edinburgh: [] [Ballantyne and Company] for Robert Cadell; London: Whittaker and Co., OCLC 81177709, page 220:
      The well imitated cry of the night-owl, too frequent a guest in the wilderness that its call should be a subject of surprise, seemed to be a signal generally understood among them; [...]
    • 1840 February, “Caliph Chasid. An Eastern Tale.”, in [Margaret de Courcy and Beatrice de Courcy], editors, The Ladies’ Cabinet of Fashion, Music, and Romance, volume III, London: G. Henderson, OCLC 911823651, chapter III, page 74:
      In the ruined chamber, which was but scantily lighted by a small grated window, he perceived a large night owl, seated upon the floor. Big tears rolled from her large, brown eyes, and with a hoarse voice she sent forth her lamentations from her curved beak.
    • 1867, Fadette [pseudonym; Marian Calhoun Legare Reeves], chapter VI, in Ingemisco, New York, N.Y.: Blelock & Co., [], OCLC 6077550, page 99:
      Wild waileth the night-wind through turret and hall, / Where the spider weaveth the funeral pall, / And voice of old from the dead Past call, / While the night-owl responds from the crumbling old wall, / Tu-whit! the midnight is murky and drear— / Tu-whoo! the deed is a deed of fear.
    • 1873, Leigh Hunt, “No. III. Piccadilly and the West End.”, in J[oseph] E[dward] B[abson], editor, The Wishing-cap Papers. [...] Now First Collected, Boston, Mass.: Lee and Shepard, publishers; New York, N.Y.: Lee, Shepard and Dillingham, OCLC 639949225, page 41:
      There we should have waked the night-owl with a catch, had an owl been within hearing. The watchman did instead.
    • 1892, Walt Whitman, “O Magnet-South”, in Leaves of Grass [], Philadelphia, Pa.: David McKay, publisher, [], OCLC 1514723, page 360:
      O the strange fascination of these half-known half-impassable swamps, infested by reptiles, resounding with the bellow of the alligator, the sad noises of the night-owl and the wild-cat, and the whirr of the rattlesnake, [...]
    • 1926, Sven Hedin, “Robinson Crusoe”, in [Alfhild Huebsch], transl., My Life as an Explorer, London; New York, N.Y.: Cassell and Company, OCLC 555224504, page 142:
      From time to time, I called "Kasim!" at the top of my voice. But the sound died away among the tree-trunks; and I got no answer but the "clevitt" of a frightened night-owl.
    • 2004, Priscilla Heath Barnum, “Explanatory Notes [Commandment IV]”, in Dives and Pauper, volume II, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Published for the Early English Text Society by the Oxford University Press, →ISBN, page 141:
      In his discussion of this psalm [Psalm 101], Augustine [of Hippo] elaborates an allegory in which the three birds, the pelican, the night owl ('nycticorax') and the sparrow ('passer'), represent three aspects of, or stages in, the earthly life of Christ. The pelican represents his solitary birth and upbringing, the night owl his agony before and during the crucifixion, and the sparrow his resurrection.
  2. (idiomatic) One who goes to bed late, or stays up late at night or in the early hours of the morning.
    Synonyms: nighthawk, night person
    Antonyms: day lark, early bird, lark, morning person
    • 1904 May, Winston Churchill, “Louisville Celebrates”, in The Crossing, New York, N.Y.: The Macmillan Company; London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., OCLC 9487546, book III (Louisiana), page 461:
      "You are one night owl, Monsieur Reetchie," he said. / "And you seem to prefer the small hours for your visits, Monsieur de St. Gré," I could not refrain from replying.
    • 1949 May, J. W. Hill, “Selling Rail Transportation”, in T. J. Zirbes, Jr., editor, Rock Island Lines News Digest, volume VIII, number 5, Chicago, Ill.: Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Company, OCLC 31916124, page 8, column 1:
      It has been said the perfect transportation salesman must be: "A man of vision and ambition; an after dinner speaker; before and after dinner goodfellow; he must work all day; be a night owl and still appear fresh the next day; [..."]
    • 1980, Marsha Norman, Third and Oak: The Laundromat: A Play in One Act, New York, N.Y.: Dramatists Play Service, OCLC 1015844560, page 5:
      And that's all for tonight, night owls. This is your Number-One-Night Owl saying it's 3 o'clock, all right, and time to rock your daddy to dreams of delight. And Mama, I'm comin' home. And the rest of you night owls gonna have to make it through the rest of the night by yourself, or with the help of your friends, if you know what I mean.
    • 2005, J. E. Dugas, “Tough Luck”, in Twisted Delirium: The Infinite Dream: A Novel, Lincoln, Neb.: iUniverse, →ISBN, page 115:
      [H]e could make out the figure of a fellow weary eyed night owl standing one space in front of him. [...] He scooted an extra step forward, one and a half cordoned spaces from the counter, but snapped back to his unpleasantly boring reality, empty of enchanting night owls or hopes to be.
    • 2006, Barack Obama, “Family”, in The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, New York, N.Y.: Crown Publishers, →ISBN, page 338[1]:
      Michelle [Obama] liked to wake up early and could barely keep her eyes open after ten o'clock. I was a night owl and could be a bit grumpy (mean, Michelle would say) within the first half hour or so of getting out of bed.
    • 2009, Martin Reite; Michael Weissberg; John Ruddy, “Appendix 2: Patient Handouts”, in Clinical Manual for Evaluation and Treatment of Sleep Disorders, Arlington, Va.: American Psychiatric Publishing, →ISBN, page 345:
      Night owls are least alert in the morning, most alert at night. This creates problems at work and at school. When night owls try to sleep at socially acceptable times, they have a hard time falling asleep and complain of insomnia.
    • 2012, Roz Denny Fox [pseudonym; Rosaline Fox], chapter 3, in Duke: Deputy Cowboy (Harlequin American Romance), Don Mills, Ont.: Harlequin Enterprises, →ISBN, page 49:
      The thieves know this area. They're night owls. And they're growing bolder.
  3. (music) A musical instrument which imitates an owl's hoot, consisting of a receptacle partly filled with water and a mouthpiece that is blown into.
    • 1874 May, James Judson Lord, “Haydn’s Children’s Symphony [actually the Toy Symphony, possibly by Leopold Mozart or Edmund Angerer]”, in [Mary Mapes Dodge], editor, St. Nicholas, volume I, number 7, New York, N.Y.: Scribner & Co., OCLC 1764817, page 429, column 2:
      The night-owl,—a mug-shaped instrument, with an orifice in its side, through which a whistle is inserted,—when used, is partly filled with water, to give the tremulous owl-hoot sound.
    • 1889, Charles Barnard, chapter VI, in The Tone Masters: A Musical Series for Young People, Boston, Mass.: New England Conservatory of Music, OCLC 10231518, book I (Mozart and Mendelssohn), pages 189–190:
      At the right was the piano, with a young lady seated, ready to play. Just before the curtain, and arranged in a semicircle, sat the juvenile orchestra,—Kitty with a tin trumpet; Jane with her night-owl filled with water and ready to pipe up; Julia with another bird, but having a different note; John with his drum, and Edward with his trumpet.

Alternative forms[edit]



  1. ^ night owl, n.”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, September 2003; “night owl, n.”, in Lexico,; Oxford University Press, 2019–present.

Further reading[edit]