Holding the Candle–Insult or Excuse?


A retirement had forced my friend to replace a talented staffer with a new hire and she was not happy. She grumped about all the training that would be needed and finally said about the new hire, “She can’t hold a candle to him.” We talked a bit about how training is always necessary, how one can’t expect old heads on young shoulder and how perhaps the retired staff member could be convinced to spend a couple of weeks helping the new person get a leg up.
As we chatted, though, part of my brain was thinking about ‘hold a candle’. The expression definitely indicates an unfavorable comparison but I had never looked into its origins.
Researchers have found instances of similar phrases as far back as the mid 1600’s. Before electricity, a helper was required to held a candle for a skilled worker so that worker could clearly see the assigned task. The candle holder was definitely inferior to the worker and probably the lowest ranking person in the shop. Someone who couldn’t even be trusted to hold the candle was at the bottom of the heap and probably not hired. Thus, can’t hold a candle to him consigns the person being compared to a very low level indeed!
A similar expression is holding the candle, as in I wasn’t holding the candle. This comes from a French expression and means I wasn’t there, I wasn’t helping, I don’t know. For example: I wasn’t holding the candle when the budget decisions were made. I wasn’t holding the candle when the contract was signed.
I’m already thinking of uses: I wasn’t holding the candle when the stinky garbage was dumped into the recycling bin. I think I’ll be using this one a lot!
Is this a useful phrase? Let me know!
Patricia May


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