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Why do we say ‘can’t hold a candle to…’?

What does the phrase mean, and when did we start using it?

Picture of a hand holding a candle
Published: November 20, 2014 at 12:59 pm
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If someone or something is just not as good enough when compared to another, it is said that it can’t hold a candle to the far superior, much better version. So – as a hypothetical example – every other history magazine can’t hold a candle to History Revealed.


It doesn’t take much to illuminate the origins of the phrase. The light of a single candle will do. Before electric lights, craftsmen would employ someone as a second pair of hands, chiefly to hold candles close enough so they could see what they were doing.

As this was not a skilled job – the candle-holding apprentices were usually children – it would have been a grievous insult for trainee craftsmen to be told they weren’t good enough even to hold the candle, let alone do the expert, highly-trained work of the actual craftsmen.


This article was taken from BBC History Revealed magazine


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