Famous Sayings: #40 — ‘Hold a Candle to…’

December 11, 2016

No one can hold a candle to you.

candle, light a candle, lighting a candle, worldwide candle lighting day, hold a candle, famous sayings

I was going to use this expression a few months ago, but I waited to delve into this expression now. I wanted to use a saying that dealt with candles.

If you don’t already know, December 11, 2016 is Worldwide Candle Lighting Day. However, the expression I’m looking at has little connection to it.

What Is Worldwide Candle Lighting Day?

Candle Lighting Day started in the United States 1997 as an Internet-based observance for the bereaved. The Compassionate Friend established the day of remembrance to honor children who died untimely deaths, whether it be by sickness, war, etc.

Today, Candle Lighting Day is a worldwide tradition that calls for people to light candles at the same time (7 pm) per time zone and keep those candles lit for one hour. The idea is to have a continuous stream of light for 24 hours. It’s a symbolic gesture to signify that the lost should never be forgotten and will always be treasured.

What Does “Hold a Candle (to)” Mean?

Of course, I had an idea of the expression’s meaning, but I till consulted numerous sources. My quick definition of the term would basically encapsulate the idea that a person (or thing) doesn’t really compare (favorably) to another person (or thing).

From The Phrase Finder:


To compare badly to an [SIC] known authority – to be unfit even to hold a subordinate position.

From Dictionary.com:

can’t hold a candle to in Culture

can’t hold a candle to definition

An expression describing a person or thing that is distinctly inferior to someone or something else: “Senator Nelson is extremely knowledgeable, but as a speaker, he can’t hold a candle to Senator Delano.”

From The Free Dictionary:

can’t hold a candle to someone

Fig. not [to be] equal to someone; unable to measure up to someone. (Also with cannot.) Mary can’t hold a candle toAnn when it comes to athletics. As for singing, John can’t hold a candle to Jane.

From English for Students:

To be far less competent or have far less skills than someone else.

The page on Accent Pros said the term means someone or something is a poor imitation.

Where Did the Expression Originate?

On page 145 of Doug Lennox’s Now You Know: The Book of Answers (2003), he puts the origin of the expression in the 16th century.

Before electric lights were in use, “a helper” was needed to hold a candle to provide light for someone else who was doing a task.

Gary Martin at the phrase finder mentioned that apprentices used to hold candles in order to help “more experienced workmen.” Candles provided light so the more experienced could see what they were doing. If someone was unable to fulfill their duty, it would account for a low status.

If someone could not hold the candle, it served as proof that the helper was far less competent than the person doing the work.

Jonny Wilkes gives a little more context to the history behind the expression. According to Wilkes, craftsmen were in need of candle-holding assistance but they likely employed children, as opposed to apprentices. It might have been a serious insult to tell another trained craftsman that he had not the skill to thrive in his business — especially since holding a candle was an unskilled position and had little to do with the actual discipline.

The phrase may have first appeared in Sir Edward Dering’s The fower cardinal-vertues of a Carmelite fryar (1641):

Though I be not worthy to hold the candle to Aristotle.

The phrase as we know it was first found in William Norris’ No New Thing (1883):

Edith is pretty, very pretty; but she can’t hold a candle to Nellie.

What About the Connotation?

From the examples, I found that the expression can have a positive or negative connotation, based on how it’s used. Some of the sources I consulted help it up as an insult or “derogatory term.”

Basically, when one says someone/something “doesn’t hold a candle to…” it does have a negative connotation. But if sometimes people who are close promote each other’s skills in comparison to others. That would be a positive connotation in my view.

Works Cited

“Can’t hold a candle to.” Dictionary.com. Information via The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005. Web. Retrieved 11 Dec. 2016. < http://www.dictionary.com/browse/can-t-hold-a-candle-to>.

“Can’t Hold a Candle to.” English for Students. Web. Retrieved 11 Dec 2016. <http://www.english-for-students.com/Hold-a-Candle.html>.

“Can’t hold a candle to.” The Free Dictionary by Farlex. Information via McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.; 2002. Web. Retrieved 11 Dec. 2016. <http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/can%27t+hold+a+candle+to>.

“Common English Phrases – American Idioms – Part 2.” Accent Pros. Web. Retrieved 11 Dec 2016. <https://www.accentpros.com/2012/05/12/hold-candle-chew-fat-close-cigar-accentpros-com/>.

Lennox, Doug. Now You Know: The Book of Answers Volume 1. Dudurn Press. Magnetawan Communication Inc., 2003. Print. Page 145.

Martin, Gary. “Hold a candle.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 11 Dec 2016. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/183700.html>.

Wilkes, Jonny. “Why we say: ‘can’t hold a candle to…’” History Revealed. 20 Nov 2014. Web. Retrieved 11 Dec 2016. <http://www.historyrevealed.com/facts/why-we-say-%E2%80%98can%E2%80%99t-hold-candle-%E2%80%A6%E2%80%99>.

“Worldwide Candle Lighting Day – 11 Dec, 2016.” Days of the Year. Web. Retrieved 11 Dec 2016. <https://www.daysoftheyear.com/days/worldwide-candle-lighting-day/>.


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