Idiomatica with Michael Kwan

If you’re looking for the absolute best smartphone around, the iPhone 7 barely holds a candle to the Galaxy Note 7. As far as affordable roadsters go, the Mazda Miata simply can’t hold a candle to the original Honda S2000. George’s financial savvy can’t hold a candle to Jerry’s. The English language is filled with all sorts of interesting idioms, but what does this one even mean and how did it come to be?

What Does It Mean?

The idiomatic phrase “hold a candle” is most often used in the context of comparing two things. It could be two literal things, as is the case with commercial products. It could be two people. It could be two experiences, two ideas, or two arguments. Whatever the case may be, one of these things is deemed to be vastly superior to the other.

Put another way, if product X can’t hold a candle to product Y, it means that product X can’t measure up to the higher standard established by product Y. It can’t do nearly as well, it can’t compete, and it is nowhere near as good. Product X isn’t even remotely of the same quality as product Y.

While it might sound like this should be understood in an absolute sense (e.g., the rundown shack can’t hold a candle to the multi-million dollar mansion), it is more commonly used as an insult, as might be the case with the iPhone example at the top. It could also be used in a more self-deprecating way: my writing skills cannot hold a candle to those of Michael Crichton.

Idioms: An Origin Story

But what on Earth does holding a candle have to do with saying that one thing is vastly superior to another, like they’re not even in the same league? Well, like some other idioms, the origin rests in the much more literal meaning of the phrase.

For this, we go back to before the advent of electricity. Working the fields in the middle of the day was perfectly doable, but working inside at night was practically impossible. It’d be far too dark. As such, more experienced tradespeople would get their apprentices to literally hold a candle. This way, they could see what they were doing and actually get their work done.

The task of holding up the candle was usually assigned to children, since they didn’t need to have any specific skills. It’s very, very simple. Anyone older with any experience whatsoever should’ve been responsible for a much challenging task. If you’re not even able to hold a candle, you’d be deemed pretty worthless and of especially low status.

I hope this post has been illuminating. 🙂