Q&A: ‘Doesn’t hold a candle to’ and ‘burn the candle at both ends’

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, it's too hot to candle…

Q: Hi AWC, can we talk about candles?

A: Sure. Whose birthday is it?

Q: No, not birthday candles. Although that’s also interesting. When did people first decide to stick small candles on a cake?

A: Well, some point to the ancient Greeks who would bake round moon-shaped cakes and place candles in them in honour of their moon god, Artemis.

Q: On their birthdays?

A: Not specifically. Birthday cakes weren’t really a thing until German bakers started upselling them in the 1600s. And the candles on top didn’t come along until a thing called Kinderfest.

Q: Oh, those chocolate eggs with toys inside?

A: No, that’s a Kinder Surprise. Did you know, they’re banned in the USA because they might harm children.

Q: Seriously? And yet anyone can go into a Walmart and buy a—

A: Let’s keep going, shall we! Kinderfest was in fact a German tradition on a child’s birthday. It involved a cake that would typically have just two candles – one for your life lived so far, and another for the years still to come. And the candles would burn all day.

Q: Well that’s no fun. 

A: It wasn’t until a 46-year-old birthday boy named Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf held a big birthday festival in his German town in 1746 that the idea of one candle per year gained traction.

Q: I’m always envious of people born in years like 2000 or 1700 as it’s so easy to remember how old you’d be turning in any given year!

A: Quite. So, anyway, according to historians, Count Zinzendorf requested “a Cake as large as any Oven could be found to bake it, and Holes made in the Cake according to the Years of the Person's Age, every one having a Candle stuck into it, and one in the Middle.”

Q: That’s quite a lot of candles to blow out. I hope he had an 18th century fire extinguisher on hand!

A: A bucket of water?

Q: Sure.

A: Actually, the idea of blowing your spittle all over the top of a cake in the act of extinguishing the flames appears to have been much later – documented in 1880s Switzerland. Make a wish!

Q: “I wish to not infect my friends with bacteria!”

A: Exactly.

Q: Well, that was interesting. But what I REALLY wanted to ask was about the term “doesn’t hold a candle to it” – usually in reference to something or someone not being as good. Why candles? 

A: Good question. The act of “holding a candle” comes from the centuries-old practice of apprentices holding a candle up to allow their masters to see what they were doing. However, if you couldn’t even be trusted with a simple task such as holding a candle, you were deemed very unfit indeed.

Q: You sound like my personal trainer…

A: The first recorded related example comes from 1641, when Sir Edward Dering wrote, “Though I be not worthy to hold the candle to Aristotle” – implying he wasn’t much of a philosopher.

Q: And remember, those ancient Greeks loved cakes with candles!

A: Yes they did. In fact, Aristotle’s student Plato actually invented cake plates.

Q: Really?

A: Nope.

Q: I hate you.

A: Anyway, the actual phrase first appears much later, in William Norris’ 1883 work, No New Thing: ​​“Edith is pretty, very pretty; but she can't hold a candle to Nellie.”

Q: So it’s being used figuratively?

A: Yes. It wasn’t that Edith was unable to assist Nellie in her gloomily-lit duties. Rather, she wasn’t deemed to be as pretty as Nellie. And considering the fact that Edith was noted as quite fetching herself, this was being used to highlight the exceptional beauty of Nellie.

Q: So “not holding a candle” went from literally being unable to assist your master in the dark, to figuratively not being able to compete in some way. Yeah?

A: That’s it. Curiously, Macquarie Dictionary also lists, “hold a candle for” as a phrase to mean “remaining hopeful”. This has completely different origins – from the practice of candlelit vigils. 

Q: I guess there are actually a few candle phrases. What about “burning the candle at both ends”? It sounds painful!

A: Haha. Yeah, well, the modern meaning is usually related to staying up late and getting up early – burning the candle into the night and then having to burn the other end to see in the pre-sunrise darkness.

Q: I’ve heard it used more broadly though.

A: Yeah, it can also mean spreading yourself too thin, taking on too many things or attempting to do too much. But none of these were its original meaning.

Q: Oh really? Do tell!

A: It actually came to English in the early 1600s – a direct translation from the French “Brusler la chandelle par les deux bouts”. 

Q: “Be our guest… be our guest… put our service to the test…”

A: Are you okay?

Q: Yeah sorry. I was just singing Lumiere the candlestick’s song from Beauty and the Beast. Please, continue.

A: So the initial translation of “burn the candle at both ends” was actually about being very wasteful. Candles were quite hard to come by, so burning through them twice as fast was considered indulgent and unwise.

Q: Sick burn, bro.

A: By 1730, we see it applied in a more financial figurative sense, meaning to waste your money. The example published in a dictionary of that time stated: “The Candle burns at both Ends. Said when Husband and Wife are both Spendthrifts.”

Q: Interesting. So when did the phrase go from spending too much money to spending too much time?

A: It can be traced to a 1920 poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay that stated: “My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends — It gives a lovely light!”

Q: That’s beautiful. And all this talk today reminds me of my uncle Steve – an expert wax worker at his local candle factory. 

A: Oh really? Is he still working there?

Q: No, they restructured the company and wanted him to work wick ends… Bahahahaaaa.

A: Get out.

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