Hold a Candle To: Definition, Meaning, and Origin

Last Updated on
February 5, 2024

The phrase "hold a candle to" is commonly used to compare two things, typically suggesting that one is not nearly as good as or comparable in quality. It often implies that the subject being compared falls short of the standard set by something else.

In short:

  • It is used to compare two things, suggesting the inferiority of one to the other.
  • Often implies that something cannot match up to the standard or quality of another thing.

What Does "Hold a Candle to" Mean?

The phrase "hold a candle to" expresses that someone or something is not as good, skilled, or qualified as another. Historically, an apprentice would hold a candle so that more experienced workers could see to work, implying that the apprentice's skills were not comparable to those of the master. Today, it's used more broadly to suggest that something doesn't measure up to another thing in quality or ability. For example, saying, "This new smartphone can't hold a candle to the older model," suggests that the new smartphone is inferior to the older one.

More about the phrase's meaning:

  • It is often used in comparing old and new, or different versions or generations of items or people.
  • The phrase can be applied in various contexts, including skills, performance, products, and achievements.
  • It implies a significant gap in quality or ability.

Where Does "Hold a Candle to" Come From?

The phrase "hold a candle to" originates from the pre-electricity era when apprentices would hold candles to light the work of skilled craftsmen. If someone couldn't hold a candle to another person, it meant they weren't even qualified to be their assistant. This idiom compares two things, usually stating that one thing is clearly inferior or less impressive than another.

10 Examples of "Hold a Candle to" in Sentences

Here are some examples to illustrate the use of this phrase:

  • No one can hold a candle to the dynamic duo of Batman and Robin.
  • This homemade pie is delicious but doesn't hold a candle to my grandmother's recipe.
  • He always dresses fresh to death but can’t hold a candle to her style.
  • Despite his efforts, the junior researcher's work couldn't hold a candle to that of the leading expert in the field.
  • She looks good in anything but doesn’t hold a candle to her sister’s beauty.
  • His new novel is interesting, but it can't hold a candle to his first bestseller.
  • These mass-produced chocolates can't hold a candle to the ones made by artisan chocolatiers.
  • Though the remake was decent, it couldn't hold a candle to the charm of the original film.
  • He was born and raised in the city but can’t hold a candle to the locals’ knowledge.
  • The coffee at this chain is okay, but it doesn't hold a candle to the local café's blend.

Examples of "Hold a Candle to" in Pop Culture

In pop culture, the phrase is used to compare artists, works, or performances, suggesting that one is not as good as another.

Examples include:

  • In the book "The Merchant of Venice," William Shakespeare wrote: "What, must I hold a candle to my shames? They in themselves, good sooth, are too too light." The play is a classic that explores themes of love, prejudice, and justice.
  • The song "Hold a Candle to This" by the Pretenders contains the lyrics: "Oh please I insist, hold a candle to this!" The song is part of their album "Get Close" and explores themes of love and longing.
  • The song "Old Flames (Can't Hold a Candle to You)" by Kesha features the lyrics: "But old flames can't hold a candle to you." The song is a cover of Dolly Parton’s original and speaks about the enduring power of love.

Synonyms: Other/Different Ways to Say "Hold a Candle to"

Here are some synonyms or similar phrases:

  • Doesn't compare to
  • Cannot match up to
  • Not as good as
  • Pales in comparison to
  • Inferior to
  • Not on the same level as
  • Falls short of
  • Not in the same league as
  • Can't measure up to
  • Not up to par with

10 Frequently Asked Questions About "Hold a Candle to":

  • Is "hold a candle to" a negative phrase?

It's often used in a negative context to indicate inferiority, but it's not inherently derogatory.

  • Can "hold a candle to" be used in professional settings?

Yes, it can be used professionally, typically in discussions of comparisons or evaluations.

  • Does "hold a candle to" always involve two things being compared?

Yes, it is used to compare two entities, suggesting that one is inferior to the other.

  • Is the phrase "hold a candle to" outdated?

No, it's still in common use and understood in contemporary English.

  • Can "hold a candle to" be used in a literal sense?

It's rarely used literally in modern times and is predominantly a metaphorical expression.

  • Can the phrase be used positively?

It's typically used in a comparative context where one thing is viewed as less favorable than another.

  • Is "hold a candle to" an American or British phrase?

It's used in both American and British English, among other English-speaking regions.

  • Can "hold a candle to" be used in academic writing?

It can be used, but more formal language might be preferred depending on the context.

  • Does "hold a candle to" imply a large or small difference in quality?

It typically implies a significant difference in quality or ability.

  • Can the phrase be used in personal relationships?

While it can be used in this context, care should be taken as it might imply negative comparison.

Final Thoughts About "Hold a Candle to"

The idiom "hold a candle to" is a useful idiomatic expression for drawing comparisons where one subject is considered significantly inferior to another. It is versatile and can be applied in various contexts, from casual conversations to formal discussions.

To recap:

  • It indicates that something does not measure up to the standard or quality of another thing.
  • The phrase is applicable in various contexts, including personal opinions, professional assessments, and cultural critiques.
  • While often used in negative comparisons, it's a valuable tool for articulating differences in quality or ability.

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