Not worth the candle
It is hard to envisage a world without artificial light. However, until the development of universal, relatively cheap and reliable means of artificial light ie gas lights and then the light bulb, many, if not most, people’s day was governed by the rise and setting of the sun. For those who could afford it, some light was thrown by the burning of a candle but it was pretty localised and unreliable – just try it. Still, it is not surprising that given the importance of the candle to extending the day that it appears in a number of phrases we still use, probably unthinkingly, today. What is more surprising, perhaps, is the French origin of a couple of them.
Take not worth the candle which we use to indicate that something is worthless or a waste of time. And we can easily imagine that it is a retort uttered by some curmudgeon after they have been engaged in some activity or pastime which failed to impress them and caused them to rue the candle that they had expended in doing whatever it was.
The origin of the phrase is French – le jeu ne vaut pas la chandelle – faithfully recorded by Randle Cotgrave in his A Dictionarie of the French and English tongues of 1611 and which he translated as “it will not quit cost”. It made its first appearance in English in Sir William Temple’s Works of around 1690 in which he wrote, “perhaps the play is not worth the candle”. However, the concept of linking the expenditure of a candle and the futility of an exercise was made by Stephen Gosson in his Ephemerides of Phialo, “I burnt one candle to seek another, and lost both my time and my trauell”.
To burn a candle at both ends, something in my youth I was guilty of, means to live life at a reckless pace. Again of French origin it appears in our friend, Randle Cotgrave’s dictionary as “brusler la chandelle par les deux boutes”. Conventional candles, of course, have one wick which is lit to burn. This arrangement allows for the wax to melt at a steadier rate and for the candle to stand upright. If you were to put a wick at both ends, the candle would burn down much more quickly, would have to be held horizontally and, therefore, would be much more difficult to use leaving both hands free.
Interestingly, by the 18th century when the phrase has begun to be used figuratively, the two ends represented husband and wife. Nathan Bailey defined the phrase in his Dictionarium Britannicum of 1730 thus, “the candle burns at both ends. Said when husband and wife are both spendthrifts”. As time passed the association with racy living was developed but the link with spendthrift husbands and wives was lost.
To hold a candle to in a negative context means to be unworthy of comparison with. One of the many tasks allotted to an apprentice was to hold a candle up to illuminate the working area of their master and this is probably where the phrase originated. The phrase was first used to compare the writer adversely with someone else by Sir Edward Dering in 1641 in his The fower cardinal-vertues of a Carmelite fryer, “though I be not worthy to hold the candle to Aristotle”. The replacement of the definite article with the indefinite article did not occur in print until 1883.