Can't Hold A Candle To: Definition, Meaning, and Origin

Last Updated on
July 28, 2023

The phrase "can't hold a candle to" is commonly used when comparing two entities, where one is deemed inferior to the other. It expresses the idea that someone or something doesn't measure up to another's quality, value, or skill. By saying, "can't hold a candle too," you imply that there is a stark difference in quality between the two subjects being compared.

In short:

  • "Can't hold a candle to" means one thing is significantly less good than another.

What Does "Can't Hold a Candle To" Mean?

The idiom "can't hold a candle to" is used when making comparisons, describing that one person or thing is inferior to another. The phrase has an undertone of inadequacy or subpar quality. If you say something "can't hold a candle to" something else, it means it is not as good, efficient, or effective.

Here are some essential points about its meanings and usage:

  • "Can't hold a candle to" is used to highlight a significant difference in quality or skill between two entities.
  • The phrase is often used to express the superiority of one over the other in comparison.
  • For example, if one says, "These homemade cookies can't hold a candle to Grandma's recipe," they mean that the homemade cookies are not as good as their grandmother's cookies.
  • Comparable phrases  include "doesn't compare to," "is no match for," and "falls short of."

Where Does "Can't Hold a Candle To" Come From?

The idiom is rooted in the 17th century when apprentices were expected to hold the candle so that more experienced workers could see their work without electric lighting. If an apprentice was not even qualified to hold the candle, it meant they were far from being as skilled or experienced as the person they were assisting.

Historical Examples

"But for all that, he can't hold a candle to our Deacon Mabee."

- Tales of Glauber-Spa, 1832

"Miss Marna and Miss Victory, he thinks that you are both very fine, but that you can't hold a candle to Miss Hope for looks. Excuse me for being plain - it's my way."

- Victoire: A Novel, 1864

"'Yes,' said Donald, 'she is, but she can't hold a candle to you. How did she look when she was your age?'"

- Her Father's Daughter, 1961

10 Examples of "Can't Hold a Candle To" in Sentences

To better understand the application of this idiom, let's look at some examples across various contexts:

  • The new smartphone can't hold a candle to the latest model in terms of features and speed.
  • Your struggle to battle for the student council presidency can't hold a candle to the rigorous campaigns we saw last year.
  • Even though you're a smart cookie, your problem-solving skills can't hold a candle to Martha's unique and creative thinking.
  • Being fashionably late can't hold a candle to arriving on time with poise and dignity.
  • Despite its efforts, the local coffee shop can't hold a candle to the well-known chains in terms of customer numbers.
  • The local news coverage can't hold a candle to the detailed reporting we see on the heels of international events.
  • The copycat products can't hold a candle to the quality and durability of the authentic brand.
  • Though I've had several relationships, none can hold a candle to the love of my life, whom I met in high school.
  • The dime piece that he's dating can't hold a candle to the timeless beauty of his ex.
  • As exciting as it might be, the typical city nightlife can't hold a candle to Austin's vibrant and fresh-to-death music scene.

Examples of "Can't Hold a Candle To" in Pop Culture

The phrase "can't hold a candle to" has also found its place in popular culture, generally used to denote quality, value, or skill comparisons.

Let's examine some examples:

  • A quote from Nick Cannon about his former wife, Mariah Carey, was reported in Variety magazine: "I can't hold a candle to that woman."
  • The 2017 movie "The Show" features a line: "Your touch is made of something/Heaven can't hold a candle to/You're made of somethin' new.
  • In a review of the movie "Hollywood Babylon" on IMDb, a critic wrote, "The slick but stale flicks of the PC 90's can't hold a candle to the wonderful world of 70's exploitation cinema."
  • A blog post on about the band's concert in Chicago includes the phrase: "But as we all know, you can't hold a candle to Fishman."
  • The song "Old Flames (Can't Hold a Candle To You)" was performed by Dierks Bentley in the TV Special "Dolly Parton: 50 Years at the Opry" in 2019.
  • A medley of songs, including "Old Flames Can't Hold a Candle To You/But You Know I Love You/Real Love/Think About Love," is credited to Randy McCormick.

Other/Different Ways to Say "Can't Hold a Candle To"

There are several other expressions that carry a similar meaning to the phrase.

Here are some alternatives:

  • It doesn't compare to
  • It is no match for
  • Falls short of
  • It isn't up to par with
  • It doesn't hold up against
  • It doesn't measure up to
  • Is inferior to
  • Pales in comparison to
  • Lacks when compared to
  • Is overshadowed by

10 Frequently Asked Questions About "Can't Hold a Candle To"

  • What does "can't hold a candle to" mean?

The phrase "can't hold a candle to" means that something or someone is clearly less good or less effective than something or someone else.

  • How can I use "can't hold a candle to" in a sentence?

You can use "can't hold a candle to" to compare two things, where one is superior. For example, "The fitness models on magazine covers with washboard abs can't hold a candle to the dedication and hard work of everyday gym-goers."

  • Where does the idiom come from?

This idiom traces back to the times when people used candles for light. A person holding a candle for someone was providing a support role. So, if you couldn't hold a candle to someone, it meant you weren't even fit to be their assistant.

  • Is "can't hold a candle to" used in formal or informal contexts?

This phrase is more common in informal and conversational contexts, but it can also be used in formal writings or speeches for stylistic purposes.

  • Can I use the phrase to compare non-tangible things?

Yes, you can use it to compare non-tangible things like ideas, experiences, feelings, etc. For example, "His new theory can't hold a candle to the widely accepted principles of physics."

  • Is the idiom "can't hold a candle to" used globally?

While it's an English expression and most commonly used in English-speaking countries, the phrase is understood by English speakers globally due to its usage in books, films, and other forms of media.

  • Is the idiom rude or offensive?

While it's a direct comparison and may highlight the inferiority of one thing or person, it's not generally considered rude or offensive. However, like any comparison, its appropriateness depends on the context and the relationship between the people involved.

  • Does "can't hold a candle to" have the same meaning as "doesn't compare to"?

Yes, both phrases highlight a difference in quality or effectiveness, suggesting that one thing or person falls short when compared to another.

  • Can I use it to compare more than two things?

While traditionally used to compare two things, the phrase can be adapted to compare multiple items or people, with the understanding that one is superior to all others. For example, "It was no mean feat, but these other designers can't hold a candle to her creative genius."

  • Is there a positive variant of "can't hold a candle to"?

There isn't a direct positive variant of "can't hold a candle to." However, phrases such as "stands out from," "is a cut above," or "is superior to" can be used to positively highlight something's superiority over others.

Final Thoughts About "Can't Hold a Candle To"

The phrase "can't hold a candle to" is a  way to express that something is inferior to something else.  Drawing from a time when candles were the main light source, the image underscores a shortfall in comparison. Essentially, the compared person or object doesn't meet the standard set by another.

Here's a quick recap:

  • The idiom compares two entities, emphasizing the superiority of one over the other.
  • Use it to describe individuals, ideas, or things that are clearly less competent, effective, or desirable than others.

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