I was just asked about the origin of the phrase “can’t hold a candle to,” and now that I’ve looked it up I’m going to share it with you all. In the words of the OED:

to hold a candle to another: lit. to assist him by holding the candle while he works; hence, to help in a subordinate position. not to be able or fit to hold a candle to: not fit to hold even a subordinate position to, nothing to be compared to.

My favorite of the citations: 1773 BYROM Poems, Others aver that he to Handel Is scarcely fit to hold a candle.


  1. Byrom’s verse (on the feuding patrons of Bononcini and Handel) is also notable for introducing Tweedledum and Tweedledee into the vernacular.

  2. In Russian, “svechku [ne] derzhal” means “was [not] an eye-witness”. It comes from a movie, AFAIK.

  3. That’s excellent! Thanks for the link to the full poem, Ben Zimmer. It’s little things like this that make me look forward to the languagehat RSS every morning.

  4. aldiboronti says

    Ben beat me to it!
    Byrom also penned this memorable quatrain:
    “God bless the King, I mean the Faith’s Defender;
    God bless – no harm in blessing – the Pretender;
    But who Pretender is, or who is King,
    God bless us all – that’s quite another thing.”

  5. Lord Byrom was also the author of “Dom Juam”, right?

  6. I add my thanks to Ben, and to aldi for the followup quatrain.
    John Emerson: He also wrote Caim and The Prisoner of Chillom, and I believe he once lived in Aberdeem.
    miram: Thanks for the Russian phrase; it’s not in my dictionaries, but while looking for it I ran across the odd expression davat’ svechku ‘to rear, prance (of a horse).’

  7. Whose shoes I am not worthy to bear- Matt iii,II via Brewers (ed. 1963) referring to a slave’s job.
    I have heard shoe/sandal not worthy to wipe/tie versions of this idea applied to a third person, rather than an admission of humility.

  8. Cryptic Ned says

    Now, investigate “carry a torch”.

  9. If you ever go on a guided walk around the older and darker parts of the city of London, the tourist guides will tell you, as an article of faith, that this refers to the link-men and link-boys who used to hold lighted torches to guide people (to take a name almost at random, Samuel Pepys) through the unlit, narrow streets to their homes. As such, it would fit LH’s dictionary definition quite well.
    So if you weren’t even good enough to do that for someone then you were definitely extremely inferior. But, to repeat, this is the tourist guides’ explanation so almost certainly wrong!
    Do any other languages have this?

  10. PlasticPaddy says

    In German the idiom translates as “not fit/able to hand someone the (glass/jug/bucket of?) water”

  11. January First-of-May says

    The idiom I know in Russian is в подмётки не годится, literally “is not fit to be (someone’s) soles”.

  12. In American English, we have “not fit to carry his jock [strap].” A jock strap, or athletic supporter, is a kind of underwear for male athletes that provides a special pouch, sometimes cushioned, to protect the genitals from injury. Although jock straps are often considered silly or unnecessary,* saying, “You couldn’t even carry his jock,” has a whiff of implying that his balls are too massive for you to carry.

    *While my younger brother needing to wear an athletic supporter for tee-ball still seems ridiculous (except perhaps as practice for the future), the importance of proper protection in serious sports was brought home to me when a friend of mine on the high school wrestling team lost a testicle in a match. You might think this would lead to some ribbing, about being only “half a man,” or some such, but there was absolutely none of that. He actually proved that he was an incomparable badass by not tapping out and instead going on to win the match before being rushed to the hospital.

  13. Related to my previous comment: YouTube just showed me a brief (no pun consciously intended) ad for Jockey brand underwear, which ended with the slogan: “Supporting families since 1934.” I found it a slightly discomfiting double entendre.

  14. “I pretty much cheer for both sides. I guess you could call me an athletic supporter.”

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