“Can’t hold a candle to someone”

When you say that someone cannot hold a candle to you, what you are implying is that the other person is not equal to you; he/she is in fact inferior to you. The expression can be used with things as well.

Examples:  *As a teacher, Satish can’t hold a candle to Atul. *According to Manaswini, no pop group can hold a candle to the Beatles.*Naveen thinks he’s a wonderful sitar player. The poor guy doesn’t realise that he can’t hold a candle to Shravan when it comes to playing the sitar.

Origin: This is one of those expressions, which has been around for several hundred years. Before the days of electricity, it was common practice to light candles after the sun went down. Since street lighting was almost non-existent, the fairly well to do had servants who followed them everywhere carrying a candle. It was also possible to hire “linkboys”. These boys carried with them lanterns and candles and they provided the necessary light for the people going from one part of the town to another. Since the servants and the linkboys were looked down upon by the masters, the expression “can’t hold a candle to someone” began to mean someone who is inferior.

The Hindu – KYE Tuesday, August 21, 2001  

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6 thoughts on ““Can’t hold a candle to someone”

  1. Wouldn’t it be: “couldn’t hold a candle for….”? if the origin where as above? I would argue that the origins where more from the trades- where a plasterer would hold a candle near a wall or ceiling to inspect his work. Holding the candle TO something to validate its quality or authenticity makes more sense in its literal form.

  2. Incorrect use of language. Simply put, if I COULD hold a candle to someone, then I am a servant, THEREFOR INFERIOR IN THE FIRST PLACE. Based on that, If I COULD NOT hold a candle to someone, then I am inferior to the actual candle-holders themselves (therefor consequently and only INDIRECTLY inferior to anybody above a candle-holder including masters).

    • Simply put, you are wrong. Couldn’t hold a candle means that you are inferior to the already inferior candle holding servant. In this case, a double negative does not equal a positive.

      • In fact I have spotted another explanation ( given below) as to the source / origin of this phrase in phrases.org.uk ( http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/183700.html )

        Apprentices used to be expected to hold the candle so that more experienced workmen were able to see what they were doing. Someone unable even to do that would be of low status indeed.

        the site gives the meaning of the phrase as ‘To compare badly to an known authority – to be unfit even to hold a subordinate position’.

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