Latin for a Candle.

I don’t remember when I first encountered the mysterious phrase “tace is Latin for (a) candle,” but it must have been long ago, since it’s kept in a very dusty attic of my memory; on the other hand, because it’s now so obscure I’ve very rarely run into it since. Here’s the OED entry (from 1910; note that tace is pronounced the good old anglicizing way, to rhyme with Stacey):

tace, v.
Pronunciation: /ˈteɪsiː/
Etymology: < Latin tacē, imperative of tacēre to be silent.

The Latin for ‘Be silent’. tace is Latin for a candle, a humorously veiled hint to any one to keep silent about something.

[Cf. 1605 W. Camden Remaines i. 162 Edmund of Langley..asked..his sonnes..what was Latine for a fetter-locke: Whereat when the yong gentleman studied, the father said,..I will tell you, Hic hæc hoc taceatis, as advising them to be silent and quiet.]
1697 W. Dampier New Voy. around World xiii. 356 Trust none of them, for they are all Thieves, but Tace is Latin for a Candle.
1752 H. Fielding Amelia I. i. x. 85 ‘Tace, Madam,’ answered Murphy, ‘is Latin for a Candle: I commend your Prudence.’
1821 W. Scott Let. 24 Feb. (1934) VI. 364 Tace shall be hereafter with me Latin for a candle.

Note that there is no attempt to account for what is on its face a nonsensical saying; note also that they classify tace as an English verb because it’s a verb in Latin, which seems to me utter idiocy. But where does the expression come from? Nobody knows! Pascal Tréguer has a good post about it at word histories (the whole site is well worth your attention); after a detailed account of the history of usage, he says:

The origin of tace is Latin for (a) candle is mysterious. According to the English clergyman and schoolmaster Ebenezer Cobham Brewer (1810-97) in Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (Philadelphia, 1898):

Tace is Latin for “be silent,” and candle is symbolical of light. The phrase means “keep it dark,” do not throw light upon on it. […] There is an historical allusion worth remembering. It was customary at one time to express disapprobation of a play or actor by throwing a candle on the stage [note 3], and when this was done the curtain was immediately drawn down.

In The History of the Theatres of London (London, 1796), the Irish playwright and theatre historian Walley Chamberlain Oulton gave an account of such an event, which took place at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, on 25th January 1772 […] However, it remains to ascertain whether the throwing of a candle on a theatre stage was a customary way of expressing disapproval, and whether it predates the earliest occurrence of tace is Latin for (a) candle.

The English translator, antiquary and lexicographer Henry Thomas Riley (1816-78) suggested a different origin in Notes and Queries (London) of 26th August 1854:

It is not impossible that it may have been a maxim framed by some scholar, who was desirous to avoid the infliction of a “curtain lecture.”

In A Dictionary of the English Language (London, 1755), the English lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-84) defined the term curtain-lecture as “A reproof given by a wife to her husband in bed”.

All thoughts are, as always, welcome.


  1. Mum is Turkish for a candle.

  2. But seriously, this is a fascinating post!

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    The Kusaal for “lamp” is fitla, later remodelled to fit into the noun-class system as sg fitir, pl fita.
    It was obvious that it was from the Hausa fitila, but it took me a bit of digging before I found out what the original Arabic word behind it was (فتيلة “wick.”)

  4. Mum is Turkish for a candle.

    I’ll be damned, so it is — that’s very cute! The Turkish word is from Persian:

    From Middle Persian (/*mōm/). Akin to Northern Kurdish mûm (“candle”), Central Kurdish مۆم‎ (mom, “candle”), Southern Kurdish موم‎ (mum, “wax”), and Old Armenian մոմ (mom), an Iranian borrowing.

    Further origin uncertain. Perhaps a borrowing from a Semitic language, from Proto-Semitic *māy- (“water, liquid, sap”); compare Akkadian 𒀀 (). The final -m could be from a plural suffix (the word being a plurale tantum in some languages) or from reduplication; compare Hebrew מים‎ (mayim).

  5. Throwing candles in a theater sounds even more dangerous than shouting fire.

    I wonder if the phrase (which is new to me) suggests that a candle can bring events to light but offers no judgment.

  6. they classify tace as an English verb because it’s a verb in Latin, which seems to me utter idiocy.

    I would go even further: since tace has no independent existence in English outside of this phrase, it should not be a headword; the phrase should be a sub-entry under Latin (or maybe candle), just as tinker’s damn doesn’t appear as an entry or sub-entry but only in the phrase “not worth a tinker’s damn” under tinker. Anybody trying to look it up under T can use the Quick Search box.

    In fact the Jonathan Swift quote, “Brandy is Latin for a Goose, and Tace is Latin for a Candle,” (discussed at length in Pascal Tréguer’s post) already does appear in the OED under Latin.

    (Yes, the OED can and does demote headwords. It’s very rare, much rarer than promotion of sub-entries to headwords, but they can do it. Alhambra was a headword in previous editions, but in the Third Edition it was found guilty of being a placename and relegated to the etymology of Alhambresque. Pabouch was a headword in previous editions, but now there’s only the spelling variant pabouche under the headword papoosh.)

  7. Yesterday’s Oxford Etymologist blog by Anatoly Liberman mentions “Tace is Latin for a candle,”

    And the first comment appended there:
    “John Leech 30TH NOVEMBER 2022
    Tace: here is an image of an archbishop (Becket) throwing down a candle to enact excommunication… surely an early example of using a candle to say “Silence!””
    With a link to the image there.

    (The saying is also included in A.L.’s Take My Word For It: A Dictionary of English Idioms (U. Minnesota Press, 2023)

  8. David Marjanović says

    Akkadian 𒀀 ()

    Oh, that’s interesting. That’s identical to the Slavic “wash” root (my- one regular sound shift later). Can we make this a Wanderwort that wandered through all of Iranian…?

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    Better yet: it is obviously identical with the Proto-Volta-Congo “liquids” class affix *ma.

  10. “Letters of the Rev. George Plaxton, M.A., rector of Barwick-in-Elmet [ob. 1720].” (Thoresby Society Publications vol 37 1945) p 72:

    Farewell, my Deare Friend, “Tace” and “Cave” are Latin words, one for an horselock, the other for- &c.

  11. “Tace” and “Cave” are words that show up a lot in the children’s books about jolly times in British public schools that used to be popular. I almost feel that they should be admitted as English words. I think there was even an expression “keeping cave”.

    Candles used to be pretty expensive, especially if they were made of beeswax. But I suppose beef tallow is good enough to express your opinion of a play.

  12. “Cave” is definitely more common, and the OED (entry from 1933) has it as an English interjection (pronounced, of course, “cavey”):

    Etymology: Latin, imperative of cavēre to take care, beware.

    School slang.

    Beware! A signal of warning, e.g. of the approach of a master. Also used substantively in to keep cave.

    [1584 R. Greene Gwydonius f. 6v Nowe thou wilte crye Caue when thy coyne is consumed, and beware when thy wealth is wracked.]
    1868 Cassell’s Mag. 17 Oct. 390/1 [Title of Poem] Cave!
    1873 ‘A. R. Hope’ Night before Holidays 110 There was a heavy footstep sounding along the passage… ‘Cave!’ ‘Canem,’ responded Lessing, burying himself under the bedclothes again.
    1883 M. E. Braddon Phantom Fortune xxxvi That indefinable air..which gives society as fair a warning as if the man wore a placard on his shoulder with the word Cave.
    1906 E. Nesbit Railway Children xiv. 295 He won’t keep cave, shirks his turn And says he came to school to learn!
    1922 Blackwood’s Mag. May 557/2 One of their number doing sentry-go gives the native equivalent for the schoolboy’s ‘Cave’ on the reappearance of their employer.
    1959 I. Opie & P. Opie Lore & Lang. Schoolchildren xvii. 373 The term ‘keeping cave’..only rarely extends to boys who do not possess any Latin… The look-out in a grammar school..may call just ‘Cave!’ (pronounced kave or kay-ve).

  13. Maybe there is some connection to “(not) hold a candle”. If someone “holds a candle” they are still a subordinate and “not holding a candle” is even beneath that. Obviously, the subordinate should keep quiet. The same expression “держать свечку” (hold a little candle) in Russian means to have a first-hand knowledge about dealings of other people. Origin is murky, but presumably from French tenir la chandelle which means the same thing, but now exclusively about someone else’s love affairs.

  14. Barb Pierson says

    From Middle Persian (/*mōm/)… Perhaps a borrowing from a Semitic language, from Proto-Semitic *māy- (“water, liquid, sap”)…
    That’s identical to the Slavic “wash” root (my- one regular sound shift later)…
    it is obviously identical with the Proto-Volta-Congo “liquids” class affix *ma. Proto-World!

    In this exceptional instance, the extension of Nostratic *maw ‘water’ to include the Iranian and Armenian forms for ‘wax’ is inadequately motivated and overreaching. We must note Proto-Uto-Aztecan *mumu ‘bee’: Hopi momo, Eudeve mumúhuo, Yoeme muumu ‘bee’; Wixárika mɯ̄mɯ́i ‘the eusocial wasp Polybia occidentalis or avispa huevo de toro which produces small quantities of edible honey’; and most cogently, Guarijío momohá ‘honeycomb’. This Uto-Aztecan etymology is far more explanatory: Uto-Aztecan consistently has two m’s, just like Persian موم‎ mōm, not just one, like Akkadian , and the semantic fit (‘bee’ ~ ‘wax’) is perfect. Moreover, Armenian մոմ mom is an o-stem (genitive մոմոյ momoy, a common type in the inherited core vocabulary but no longer productive in the formation of new stems), and the Armenian o-stem matches the Uto-Aztecan forms even more precisely.

  15. January First-of-May says

    The Kusaal for “lamp” is fitla, later remodelled to fit into the noun-class system as sg fitir, pl fita.
    It was obvious that it was from the Hausa
    fitila, but it took me a bit of digging before I found out what the original Arabic word behind it was (فتيلة “wick.”)

    That is, fatīla; Wiktionary gives an alternate form فَتِيل fatīl, with a lengthy list of descendants in its own right, including Russian фитиль “wick, fuse” (via Persian and Turkish), but doesn’t provide any descendants to the form you list even though the Hausa word is said to originate from it (reportedly via Songhay).

  16. It seems more likely to me that it originated with that anecdote about Edmund of Langley getting his kids to shut up by asking them the word for “fetterlock” in Latin. Over the course of another century or two, the shackle could easily have become a candle. Especially given the “horselock” that mollymooly dug up: people seem to have been familiar with the story and were citing it in relation to “tace.” Maybe no one cared much anymore about Edmund’s heraldic badge.

  17. maidhc: OK, if tace can be found outside of the fixed phrase, then it does qualify as an English word. Any suggestions on where to look — authors, titles, dates? I tried Google and Hathi, but all I got were OCR errors and “Eustace” broken across a line or abbreviated as “Tace”. I did find that Patrick O’Brian used the phrase in at least four different books, which could well be where Hat last saw it: e.g. in Post Captain,

    ‘Well, I must be discreet myself, I find,’ said Jack, sitting down and looking wonderingly at Stephen. ‘But you did say …’

    ‘Now listen, Jack, will you? I am somewhat given to lying: my occasions require it from time to time. But I do not choose to have any man alive tell me of it.’

    ‘Oh no, no, no,’ cried Jack. ‘I should never dream of doing such a thing. Not,’ he added, recollecting himself and blushing, ‘not when I am in my right mind. Quite apart from my love for you, it is far, far too dangerous. Hush: mum’s the word. Tace is the Latin for a candle. I quite understand — am amazed I did not smoke it before: what a deep old file you are. But I twig it now.’

    Also in The Fortune of War, The Truelove, and The Golden Ocean, sometimes with “candlestick” instead of “candle”.

    And here’s a literary critic writing on Henry Fielding’s Novels and the Classical Tradition who doesn’t recognize the idiom:

    Fielding confirms the reader’s suspicion that the lawyer’s learning is less than his legal jargon suggests when Murphy tells Miss Mathews that Tace (be silent) actually means “candle.”

    Oops, too bad that critic didn’t look in the OED and find exactly that quotation under tace! Again, there’s more context given at Pascal Tréguer’s post; yes, the lawyer is showing off with bits of Latin, but he’s not making a mistake, he’s advising the defendant not to talk in front of several others who are present.

  18. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    It’s gardinpræ(di)ken in Danish. Gardinenpredigt, sermon sous les rideax. TIL that the curtains in question are the ones used on the marital fourposter–WIWAL we didn’t have fourposters and curtains were for windows. I don’t know how I imagined the scene when I learned the word, but it’s still current in Danish.

    Also Danish has tie, Swedish tiga cognate with tacere. Tace! = Ti stille!. OHG had dagen, Go þahan, but it seems that of the living languages it’s only Scandinavian that knows it.

  19. That verb is one of several Italic-Germanic isoglosses that show both families must have been neighbours before the Italic speakers moved to Italy.

  20. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Maybe the tradition for middle european folks to vacation in that nice sunny peninsula across the mountains and bring back girls and gold is older than recorded history.

  21. The more I think of it, the more likely it seems that the whole point of the saying is to tell someone to be quiet in a sub rosa way (“advising the defendant not to talk in front of several others who are present”), and the specific word used at the end is more or less irrelevant — it could have been “fetterlock,” but “candle” won out.

  22. David Eddyshaw says

    Geoffrey Heath seems to have an interest in collecting expressions used in African languages to ask covertly whether an outsider who is present understands their language: for Jamsay Dogon, this is apparently Sugu gañakɔ ma? “Does the partridge scratch the ground?”

  23. How would that work? What’s supposed to happen when you say it?

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    Alas, he gives no further details. I presume that if such a linguistically accomplished intruder is present, the response is “Yes”, and everyone continues the conversation in Fulfulde or Bangime or something. Or even French, to really mystify the no-good nosey-parker. Or you simply don’t say all the things that you were going to about him (“Dig that sola topi, man!”)

    I never came across anything like this myself (but then, I suppose that the whole point is that I wouldn’t have done.) Maybe it’s a Dogon thing (though I do dimly recall that he cites examples from elsewhere, but I can’t locate a reference at present.)

    It presumably wouldn’t be a thing for languages which actually are commonly used by outsiders, like Hausa; not even for a language like Kusaal, which is used as a local lingua franca by groups like the Bisa (nobody speaks Bisa, except, presumably, Bisa. Maybe they have a saying like this. How would we even know?)

  25. Yes, Pascal Tréguer (site linked above) has lots of excellent research.

    For instance, he found the earliest use, as far as I know, of “the full Monty” (Sept. 22, 1975).

    Me, I suggest:
    “…. The 1973 film “O Lucky Man!” features a mysterious “golden-thread” suit, that perfectly fits and maybe fully protects the ground-coffee salesman. (Though the Helen Mirren character calls it “nylon” and says “not all that glitters is gold.”) The tailor, of course, was named Monty.”

  26. Review of Reliquiae Hearnianae 1857:

    John Wry, the editor of Chaucer, who, like Hearne, was a Nonjuror, addresses a Latin letter to him shortly before his death, March 19, 1715, in which he appears covertly to warn him against a too free expression of his political sentiments. The letter is short, but the following words only deserve quotation, as they seem to throw light upon the old saying, “Tace is Latin for a candle:” — “Apud leguleios regula est, Abundans candela non nocet: et comici nostrates candelam reddunt per Tace.”

    “With the lawyers there is a rule, Excess of precaution [if this is the meaning here of candela] can do us no harm; and our comic writers make Tace to be Latin for it.” It is just possible that in the early lawyers, from their resemblance solely, the words candela and cantela became used, in this instance, as convertible terms; and the comic writers, perpetuating the joke, implied that as tace, “hold your tongue,” was the Latin word for cantela, a caution, it must of necessity be the Latin for candela, (properly meaning a “candle”) as well.

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    Shouldn’t it be cautela?

  28. Cautela is the true form of the maxim; here’s the cited source, which has candela there but cautelam a line earlier. It may be ironic or punning or otherwise not to be taken literally.

  29. David Eddyshaw says

    Ah: Abundans cautela non nocet actually is a legal maxim:

    So one can well see a lawyer* turning this into Abundans candela non nocet for the lolz: “No harm in excessive candle”, as given in Urry’s note.

    I think you may have cracked it.

    * They have a sense of humour, but not as we know it.

  30. Yes, that’s very plausible. Benefecisti!

  31. If abundans candela non nocet, I’ll throw this in for everybody’s entertainment.

  32. Cuconnacht says

    I learned that mum was Turkish for candle just a couple of weeks ago when I was curious about the family name of Madeleine Mumcuoğlu (“son of the candle-maker”), the research associate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who first noticed the inscription discussed in this Languagehat post:

  33. A nice connection indeed!

  34. expressions used in African languages to ask covertly whether an outsider who is present understands their language

    In Korandje, it’s Awǝṛwǝy ba-hhur taɣǝm-yu, “a pebble has entered the shoes”. The point being: if you thought we could safely discuss our private affairs in front of this stranger without him understanding, you’re wrong, so keep mum. And since he does inconveniently understand our language, this warning needs to be phrased in a sufficiently obscure way that even fluent speakers won’t immediately understand if uninitiated.

  35. David Eddyshaw says

    I wonder how widespread this is?

    I’m sure Jeffrey Heath gives other examples than Jamsay, but I can’t track them down at present.
    Presumably it would really only feature in smallish languages where you wouldn’t really expect outsiders to understand, but then it’s not like there’s any shortage of those in Africa.

  36. I have vague memories of something like that in Armenian – maybe Xerîb will know?

    Heath mentions them in quite a few languages – often you find something along the lines of “he eats (local staple)” to mean “he understands our language”. Also mentioned by Nicholas for Zenaga Berber.

  37. The discussion of coded questions about who can understand what is being said reminded me of the Lords Starmount and Crudelta from “Drunkboat“:

    “And under what custom or law did you act?”

    “Reserved material,” said the Lord Crudelta promptly. “There are telepaths here who are not a part of the Instrumentality. I beg leave to defer until we have a shielded place.”

    Several members of the panel nodded and Starmount agreed with them. He changed the line of questioning.

    Starmount lifted his hand for silence.

    The panel members stared at him.

    Only the few telepaths present knew that they had all said, “Aye. Let the man go. Let the girl go. Let the doctors go. But bring back the Lord Crudelta later on. He has many troubles ahead of him, and we wish to add to them.”

  38. Green’s dictionary of slang mentions another potential Latin pun, under coot (n. 1): “proverbial phr. stupid as a coot; ? play on Lat. Fulica, the species/SE foolish; the coot, synon. with the Foolish Guillemot, is seen in pvbs as a foolish bird.”

  39. Good lord, someone just revived the cootie thread after many years (“If you are crazy as a coot—what is a coot‽”), and now this! Synchronicity!!

  40. Yeah, that made me look at Green’s, which connected to this thread. Because we live in a script from Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.

  41. Oh! OK, I’ll recalibrate the synchronicity meter.

  42. Latin cautela was also borrowed into English as cautel, with various senses including ‘A precaution; in Law, etc., an exception, restriction, or reservation made for precaution’s sake.’ The OED had all the senses marked “Obsolete or archaic” already in 1889.

    Another sense in English, ‘craftiness, trickery’, appears in Mandeville’s Travels, and hence in Ulysses (Oxen of the Sun) pastiching Mandeville:

    And he said now that he should go into that castle for to make merry with them that were there. And the traveller Leopold said that he should go otherwhither for he was a man of cautels and a subtile. Also the lady was of his avis and repreved the learningknight though she trowed well that the traveller had said thing that was false for his subtility.

  43. ktschwarz says

    “Cave” is definitely more common, and the OED (entry from 1933) has it as an English interjection

    This is another one where the entry should be described as “from 1972”, since Burchfield revised the original 1933 entry with more detail and additional quotations from both before and after 1933.

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