Hold a Candle

Whilst looking into how other languages express the concept of “playing gooseberry”, I couldn’t help noticing how many other languages use an expression like “hold a candle/ lantern” in that case. The interesting thing is, of course, that “to hold a candle” means something quite different in English. We use it, of course, to mean that someone is inferior to someone else, or that they fare very badly in a comparison. Obviously, the phrase is in the negative; he can’t hold a candle to you.

So where do we get this expression from, with its radically different meaning in relation to other European languages?DSC03338

Well, there appear to be two main schools of thought on this. The first is that it refers to the apprentice system of the past, in which a lowly apprentice would have to hold a candle at the right angle so that a craftsman would be better able to see the task at hand as the day wore on and the light grew dim. Obviously, the apprentice would have been considered unknowledgeable and inferior in this case, and if they weren’t even able to hold a candle, they really were useless by comparison.

Personally, I think it would have been more likely for people to use a lantern to see by when they needed, so I tend towards the second theory:

In the days before street-lighting was commonplace, people would often use the services of a link-boy, whose job it was to carry a flaming torch to see by, so that people could get safely home from taverns, theatres and so on. Already considered a job of lowly status, a link-boy who only had a flickering candle and not even a torch would have been seen as vastly inferior. Imagine being unable to perform even this lowly task!

So what do other languages have to say, bearing in mind that they frequently use the hold the candle phrase where English speakers would think of playing gooseberry.


Let’s start with Welsh, in which we find two expressions. The first is: ni all ef ddal cannwyll i chi, which is exactly the same as the English, and I suspect heavily influenced by it, meaning: “he can’t hold a candle to you”. However, the second is in a different style. Rydych chi’n frenin iddo; “you are as a king to him”. This phrase seems somehow more positive than the other.

Moving on to German, there is an intriguing phrase; Sie kann Dir das Wasser nicht reichen, which translates as “she cannot pass you the water”. You might wonder what the implications are here; is she incapable or just not worthy?!

Then we have French, with the expression il ne vous arrive pas à la cheville; literally, “he doesn’t come up to your ankle”. The Spanish evidently think along simlar lines, with (someone) no te llega ni a los talones – (someone) “can’t even reach your heels”.

This thought is not confined to Romance languages. If we travel to the Balkans and look at Slovenian, the expression used is Še do gležnjev ti ne seže, which translates in the same was as the French sentence; “they don’t reach up to your ankle”. Similarly, you can also use Še do kolen mu ne seže; “they don’t reach up to your knees”, depending on how complimentary you want to be. But Slovenian, like Welsh, also uses a positive expression; On/ona je zanj/zanjo kot Bog, meaning “he/she is like a god to him/her”. Very expressive indeed!

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