Snuffing a Candle.

It was recently brought to my attention that I didn’t actually know what the phrase “snuffing (out) a candle” meant; I had assumed it meant “extinguish,” and if you do a Google image search on “candle snuffer” you will see devices clearly meant to extinguish candles, but sometimes that sense seems out of place, and this forum post, started by a question on this very subject, produced enlightening answers:

So I understand that snuffing (out) a candle means to extinguish the fire, but this phrase in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist made me a bit confused, since English is not my first language.

He remained lost in thought for some minutes; and then, with a heavy sigh, snuffed the candle, and, taking up the book which the Jew had left with him, began to read.

Why would he extinguish the flame if he was to read a book? I have searched for other meanings and apparently it also means to inhale, but that also doesn’t make sense, because he let out a heavy sigh just before snuffing the candle! What does that sentence mean?

The response from entangledbank (Senior Member, London) gives the basic answer:

Today, snuffing means snuffing out or extinguishing, but back when they actually used candles all the time, it was usually the action of removing the burnt part of the wick. There’s another example of this confusing use in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey:

The dimness of the light her candle emitted made her turn to it with alarm; but there was no danger of its sudden extinction; it had yet some hours to burn; and that she might not have any greater difficulty in distinguishing the writing than what its ancient date might occasion, she hastily snuffed it. Alas! It was snuffed and extinguished in one.

And PaulQ (Senior Member, UK) provides a useful OED cite:

I am grateful for your question: I did not know, but the OED tells us both that not only does “to snuff” mean “to extinguish; to put out,” (and probably should be used as a phrasal verb “to snuff out”) but it also means “to trim the burned wick from the candle:

1. a. trans. To free (a candle, wick, etc.) from the snuff, by pinching or cutting this off, or removing it with a special instrument.
1887 T. A. Trollope What I Remember I. i. 26 Two tallow candles, requiring to be snuffed by snuffers lying in a little plated tray.

Here is a picture of pair of candle-snuffers. You will see that they are like scissors, but the idea is that you can cut the burned wick of the candle whilst it is still alight and not leave a mess.

So what Oliver was doing was removing the burned part of the wick and the candle would remain alight.

So all is clear, except that I still can’t picture how exactly it works; my efforts to turn up a video have proved fruitless (e.g., “How to snuff out a candle” simply shows a flame being extinguished). If anyone knows of one, please share.


  1. I’ve seen these devices but never used one. I think the idea is that you use the scissor part to snip off the top of the burning wick and, with a deft twist of the wrist, catch the burned end in the box part so that it doesn’t fall onto His Grace’s polished mahogany tea-table (assuming you are a character in a Trollope novel).

  2. Stu Clayton says

    Kerzenlöscher (candle snuffer) (from 0:39)

    Dochtschere (wick trimmer)

    The snuffer simply suffocates the flame. It doesn’t require pinching the wick, for example, which was what I used to think was done to “snuff” a candle (also by a Kung Fu flick of the wrist from 10 meters away) This may have seemed like a big deal when folks didn’t know about oxygen.

    All the videos I found stress how important it is to trim the wick every 4 hours, to keep it from smoking and stuff like that – maybe also falling over into the molten wax ? This is slow living at its finest.

  3. Stu Clayton says

    Can you please tell the CTO that the “click to edit” sometimes vanishes after a refresh of the page, although the 15 minutes are not up. When that happens, I create a new post. Then the previous “click to edit” reappears, along with the one for the new post.

  4. Thanks, but the first is just another put-the-cup-on-top-of-the-flame video (do people really need videos to explain that? what’s next, “how to stick your finger in your mouth”?), and the second requires you to put the candle out first. I’m hoping for an example of how “removing the burned part of the wick and the candle would remain alight” works.

  5. Kerzenlöscher (candle snuffer)

    And looking up Kerze in Lutz Mackensen, I see it’s from Latin charta. Odd!

  6. Stu Clayton says

    Dammit, what happened to the one I found showing how to trim while it burns ?

    I don’t know what you mean by “do people really need videos to explain that?” How many times have you suffocated a candle with a little bell ? Do you even own a candle snuffer ?

    What I learned from the video is that a candle flame can be put out more simply and neatly that way, and with less drama, than by pinching or kung fu sonic waves.

  7. Stu Clayton says

    Neither Duden nor Grimm says anything about Latin charta. How is that supposed to work, semantics-wise ?

    Duden: Ker|ze , die; -, -n [mhd. kerze, ahd. charza, kerza, H. u.]: (“Herkunft ungeklärt”)

    Here’s an automatic snuffer.

  8. I don’t know what you mean by “do people really need videos to explain that?” How many times have you suffocated a candle with a little bell ?

    Once, I think. I plopped the cup on top and the flame went out. Magic! But I will grant you that if I had more expertise (had watched the video) there might have been less smoke.

  9. Patricia McD says

    I read here from time to time in awe of all you linguistically impressive people because I love words in my dim way but never did I think in this life I would actually know something to the point.
    A burning candle with impurities (we have very clean candle wax these days) will accumulate not only burnt wick that no longer holds the wax to burn but also a glob of burnt junk. You carefully snip this off with a scissor or use a knife against your thumb or a pair of snuffers. Using the snuffer cut only the very tip top of the wick with the glob leaving part of the black wick burning. It takes practice to do it well and like poor Catherine Morland you can put your candle out in the process.

  10. Martin Langeveld says

    The trick is, with the candle snuffers that have a little box to catch the snuff, you don’t cut off the entire burned part of the candle. That would, of course, take the flame with it into the box and put the candle out. You cut, say, halfway up the blackened part, so that the upper portion falls into the box, while the lower portion remains burning below the blade.

    These gadgets became obsolete after the 1820s as “snuffless” candles were introduced, which consumed the entire wick rather than leaving an unburned portion.

  11. David Marjanović says

    de.wiktionary, citing Duden and Kluge/Seebold, says MHG kerze, OHG (since 8th century) cherzâ, charza and charz, of which the last two also mean “wick”. The only attempt to trace it further is a very tentative suggestion that it might somehow be related to Latin candela, “tallow light”; don’t ask me how -/nd/- could be related to *-/rt/-.

    The a ~ e variation is odd. Maybe it amounts to “secondary umlaut”, i.e. *(-)ar…j- > OHG (-)[ær]-, where the [æ] was usually written a but sometimes e. If so, maybe “candle” is a derivative of “wick”; I don’t know what kind of meaning would be expected of a *jō-stem, but at least it would be feminine.

    The long â is also odd as far as I understand, which is not as far as I can throw it, though.

  12. Thanks, Patricia and Martin!

  13. Stu Clayton says

    Yes, thanks to Patricia and Martin ! I found this bolded info particularly striking:

    # A burning candle with impurities (we have very clean candle wax these days) will accumulate not only burnt wick that no longer holds the wax to burn but also a glob of burnt junk. #

    Notice the word “junk”, telling us what wicks were often made of. (Patricia, was that accidentally on purpose ?) Grimm on Kerze says that “everybody had some around the house” from making linen from scratch.

    # In China, in 200 BCE, hemp was mixed with lime and tung oil, and used as caulk for junk ships, classic ancient Chinese sailing vessels. It is no surprise these hemp vessels, which sailed by the early Middle Ages, are still in wide use. # (The many faces of hemp)

    I used to half-think that “junk ships” transported opium and junkies. Silly me. They didn’t always.

  14. Part of what makes an old wick no longer permeable to the lipids is buildup of incompletely oxidized fuel. The presence of a lot of ash in old-fashioned tallow tapers is tied to the fact that tallow burns more slowly and thus coolly, and, dyssynergistically, that it contains far more impurities than beeswax or modern solid paraffin. There are proteins mixed into the matrix, and even the lipids are not pure hydrocarbons, but are often attached to charged head groups. All these components add nitrogen and sulfur, which slow combustion and contribute to smoke particles.

  15. J.W. Brewer says

    So the point is that although we think of candles as a fairly ancient technology there actually have been objective improvements in the state of the art in candle design/manufacture over the last 200 years, such that the cutting-off-bits-of-wick process is no longer necessary to secure optimal (or at least acceptable) candle performance?

  16. Stu Clayton says

    Older candles can’t hold a candle to those of today. If they could, there would be a lot of smoke obscuring the comparison.

  17. Bathrobe says

    This page, Candle Snuffers and Wick Trimmers, notes as follows:

    When complete, wick-trimmers are shaped like a pair of scissors with the base and sides of a box attached to one blade, and a flat cover for the box attached to the other. The scissors are to trim a candle’s wick, and the box is for collecting the remains (the ‘snuff’).

    If a candle’s wick gets too long, the charred end impedes burning, making the flame dim and smoky. The self-trimming plaited wick was invented in 1825 by Joseph Cambacères. It curls over into the hottest part of the flame and burns away.

    Candle-extinguishers are also known, domed or conical in shape, but are rarely recorded, perhaps because they appear to be late post-medieval or modern in date.


    The only object type possible is CANDLE SNUFFER, as ‘wick trimmer’ does not exist in the mda thesaurus. The mda’s scope note states that a candle snuffer is ‘an object used to stop a candle burning’, but wick-trimmers were certainly known as candle-snuffers before the mid 19th century.

    If you are interested in the etymology, an earlier use of the verb ‘to snuff’ was ‘to cut or pinch off the burned part of a candle wick’. It comes from the Middle English noun snoffe, ‘burned part of a candle wick’.


    There have also been developments in candle-snuffer technology. The photos of candle-snuffers shown on the page in question appear to differ from the little box shown at Wikipedia.

    Noel Hume (1969, 98) describes what sounds like a very similar type of wick-trimmer from colonial America, and suggests that they were in use by at least 1600. The decoration can include rocker-arm, which might suggest that they began to be used even earlier, perhaps in the 16th century.

    The decline of the copper-alloy wick-trimmer is due to several factors. Firstly candles became less ubiquitous from the late 18th century, as reliable domestic oil lamps arrived, then paraffin and (in urban areas) gas lighting by the middle of the 19th century. Secondly, although candles continued to be used as small, convenient portable light sources until the introduction of electricity in the first few decades of the 20th century, wick-trimmers became far less necessary after the invention of the self-trimming wick in 1825. Lastly, wick-trimmers from the late 18th century onwards were probably made from iron, as they are still today, although they now have a small open saucer to catch the snuff.

    The type of copper-alloy wick-trimmer normally recorded on the PAS database, with a separate side-plate decorated with pierced trefoil terminals, therefore seems to be confined to c. 1550-c. 1750.

  18. Today, whale oil seems pungent, smoky, and generally unpleasant to burn, in the eighteenth century it was considered a huge advance over tallow candles.

  19. ə de vivre says

    Is “snuff” the wick-trimming action by any chance related to “snuff” the method of tobacco consumption that requires pinching the fingers?

  20. Aha! I knew there had to be a connection with snuff tobacco.

  21. @ə de vivre: I had the same thought about the pinching action being the connection, but the actual answer is unclear.

    According to the OED, all the meanings of snuff related to sniffing, snuffling, taking powdered tobacco, and other nasal phenomena are from Middle Dutch snoffen or snuffen mean “to snuffle” and some of the other related meanings. This form appears to be a completely unremarkable loan, dating to the sixteenth century.

    However, the older (fourteenth century) meaning relating to candles is said to be: “Of obscure origin: German schnuppe…, which agrees in sense, does not correspond phonetically.”

  22. David Marjanović says

    does not correspond phonetically

    Unless we construe an iterative verb that could give us a Kluge mess.

  23. Stu Clayton says

    The “agreement in sense” can be seen in today’s expression das ist mir schnuppe (“I don’t care a whit about that”) < norddeutsch die Schnuppe = verkohlter Docht (einer Kerze o. Ä.) (“burnt-out wick”).

    As a verb:

    # mittelniederdeutsch snup(p)e, zu: snuppen = den Kerzendocht säubern (“trim the wick”) #

  24. Lars (the original one) says

    Danish, on the other hand, has snyde for snuffing a light and blowing your nose, while snuse means sniffing and using tobacco.

    The etymological dictionary (s.v. snyde) compares the evolution in sense to French moucher and (Classical) Latin emungere (to blow ones nose) vs emunctorium (candle snuffer).

  25. Stu Clayton says

    Looks like the stem mung may mean “boogers”.

    emungere also means “cheat”. That’s said to be a figurative use. But what’s the figure, if not a booger ?

    Is cheating someone out of something like picking his nose surreptitiously ? As one of R. Crumb’s characters said: “You can pick your nose, and you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your friends’ noses”. This would then be an admonition against cheating.

  26. Lars (the original one) says

    Cf naso ducere.

  27. Stu Clayton says

    Yeah, that too !

    It seems the stem mung- does in fact mean the slimy phase state of boogers, being derived from PIE *meug-.

    # “viscid fluid secreted by the mucous membranes of animals,” 1660s (replacing Middle English mucilage), from Latin mucus “slime, mold, mucus of the nose, snot,” from PIE root *meug- “slippery, slimy,” with derivatives referring to wet or slimy substances or conditions (source also of Latin emungere “to sneeze out, blow one’s nose,” mucere “be moldy or musty,” Greek myssesthai “to blow the nose,” myxa “mucus;” Sanskrit muncati “he releases”). Old English had horh, which may be imitative. #

  28. AJP Crown says

    snuse means sniffing and using tobacco but Lars, (at least, in Norway) isn’t snus the tobacco you put in your mouth and chew? I don’t think it’s quite like snuff.

    I was just reading Northanger Abbey and I noticed that it was written in 1790 something and has a sentence about baseball, which I’d always thought was an American thing or at least Japanese. I can’t be the first person to comment on this but I’ll mention it anyway, I’m sure it was ‘baseball’ and it looked quite odd in the context as if she’d mentioned the global warming.

  29. PlasticPaddy says

    There is a (I think urban english) slang word snout for tobacco.

  30. Stu Clayton says
  31. Lars (the original one) says

    isn’t snus the tobacco you put in your mouth and chew — that’s chewing tobacco, tyggetobak. Snus is now the name for tobacco sold in little paper pouches that you put under your lip (mundsnus), and chewing them would defeat the purpose.

    Until about 1800, snuff tobacco was taken through the nose (lugtesnus) and chewing tobacco was chewed. I think there were differences in treatment, chewing tobacco being moist, coarsely cut and twined while snuff was a finer, dry powder. Then (in the words of Danish WP) the two products were ‘combined’ (in Sweden) to get a product that could be used with your hands free but maybe didn’t force you to spit brown sauce all over your house, and they (the Swedes) called that snus as well.

    In my middle class upbringing, snus was something upperclass people used in Holberg comedies, and we knew that fishermen and such would tygge skrå, but nobody we knew of used snus — it was still only a Swedish thing. I don’t know what the difference between the skråtobak of old and the modern tyggetobak is, maybe the latter is just the regulatory term.

  32. I was just reading Northanger Abbey and I noticed that it was written in 1790 something and has a sentence about baseball, which I’d always thought was an American thing or at least Japanese. I can’t be the first person to comment on this but I’ll mention it anyway, I’m sure it was ‘baseball’ and it looked quite odd in the context as if she’d mentioned the global warming.

    Yes, baseball goes back to a similar English game of the same name, which was brought to America in the eighteenth century where it developed various names, including “townball” and “roundball,” and various regional rules and styles of play; the name “baseball” and the New York rules eventually won out. The stupid nationalistic American story about how baseball was invented in the US even though it had a sort of (*handwave*) English cousin called “rounders” can be ignored; the true history has been well known for some time and is brilliantly summed up in David Block’s Baseball before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game, which I heartily recommend to anyone with any interest in the topic. (See this LH post for other recommendations.)

  33. WP quote:

    Lapta (Russian: лапта́) is a Russian bat and ball game first known to be played in the 14th century.[1] Mentions of lapta have been found in medieval manuscripts, and balls and bats were found in the 14th-century layers during excavations in Novgorod. It is similar to cricket, brännboll, Rounders, baseball, oină, Tsan (Italy) and pesäpallo.

  34. AJP Crown says

    If it’s similar to cricket, brännboll, rounders and baseball, it’s just another game where you hit a ball with a stick. In that, it’s similar to croquet, tennis, squash, golf etc., even polo, that are all mentioned in Beowulf and were first played by women in Scotland during the Stone Age.

    David Block’s Baseball before We Knew It
    I’ll get this for my mother, she loves baseball thanks to the Ken Burns’ doc.

  35. If it’s similar to cricket, brännboll, rounders and baseball, it’s just another game where you hit a ball with a stick. In that, it’s similar to croquet, tennis, squash, golf etc., even polo

    It’s not that simple. Read the book before you give it to your mother.

  36. (It’s nice and short, though it has a long bibliography and lots of appendices.)

  37. AJP Crown says

    Good idea. Thanks, Language!

  38. Lars, do you know what’s known in the US as Copenhagen brand chewing tobacco? Is that what you’re referring to? This is the kind you tuck into your gums.

    In the US it’s acknowledged as a pretty foul habit, material for at least two jokey country songs.

  39. Mackensen? Duden? Wictionary? The standard dictionaries of German etymology are Kluge/Seebold and Pfeifer, and they both agree that Kerze is “etymologisch ungeklärt” (Pfeifer). Pfeifer mentions the speculative derifvation from charta and calls it “möglich”, but also offers as an alternative “(candela) cerata“. Kluge/Seebold does little more than quote Pfeifer’s views, so there don’t seem to have been any new developments since the mid-1990s.

  40. David Marjanović says

    “(candela) cerata“

    *lightbulb moment* Waxed (waxy?) candle! That makes semantic sense.

    It requires that the middle vowel was dropped before the High German consonant shift (*-rt- > -rz-, but *-rVt- > -rVss- or eventually -rs(ch)-); but given fenestra > Fenster, I suppose that’s possible, though the middle vowel in fenestra should have been short.

  41. As one of R. Crumb’s characters said: “You can pick your nose, and you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your friends’ noses”.

    Stu, do you remember where that was? The earliest I can find that line is in a 1974 National Lampoon. It’s such a classic line, I had thought it was much older.

  42. Lars (the original one) says

    @Y, the Copenhagen brand is purely US, introduced in 1822, and their ‘dipping’ tobacco (fine cut) seems to be the ‘new’ kind of snus that was introduced in Sweden at about the same time. They also have varieties such as ‘Long Cut’ that I assume is chewing tobacco, but I can only guess based on Wikipedia.

  43. “Long cut” is indeed chewing tobacco, to be pinched out in a wad and rammed into the side of the mouth, outside the lower row of teeth.

    I am not sure whether the word “long” there actually means anything significant about the geometry of the tobacco leaf pieces or not. It’s mostly there for marketing purposes. U. S. Tobacco (the company that reinvigorated* the chaw segment of the American tobacco market) had a carefully designed brand strategy aimed at getting teens to start using chewing tobacco (with gimmicks like mint-flavored mixes), then moving them up to stronger, more addictive, more expensive formulations, culminating in the Copenhagen brand. Emphasizing “long cut” was a way to make the higher tiered brands seem more robust and mature to impressionable young men who wanted a product that would confirm their masculinity.

    *I wish I could think of a better word here to describe this, one that expresses how vile I think the company’s activities were.

  44. John Cowan says

    If it’s similar to cricket, brännboll, rounders and baseball, it’s just another game where you hit a ball with a stick.

    It’s a lot closer than that. Rounders has been characterized for Americans as “softball played with baseball equipment but without gloves”, and reading about the game, this description seems to be on the money. In any case base ball seems to be the oldest known name for the proto-game.

  45. Bathrobe says

    It’s such a classic line, I had thought it was much older.

    What’s the opposite of the recency illusion?

  46. The version that I have long been familiar with is: “You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick you relatives.” This might be a mashup of more basic adages though. The version of picking your friends’ noses seems to dominate the Google hits.

  47. Stu Clayton says

    Y: I can’t remember in which comix I saw the cartoon at the end of the 60s, maybe Zap. It has 4 or 6 panels, I think. Little Mary/Suzy/Sally is told by her mother what she can and cannot pick. She thinks about this, goes outside and walks down the sidewalk. Her friend Billy comes along and she says “Hey Billy, can I pick your nose?”. He replies “Sure!”, and extends a big pig-snout nostril. She inserts her finger and they both have a fit of laughter.

    A few cartoons from those head-y days are permanently imprinted on my mind. They made me what I am today.

  48. ktschwarz says

    The opposite of the Recency Illusion: the Antiquity Illusion.

    Ironically, Zwicky’s feeling that “the whole nine yards … was in common use when I was in high school and college (in the 50s and early 60s)” turned out not to be an Antiquity Illusion, as the expression has now been antedated all the way back to the early 20th century. We’re living in a golden age of antedating.

  49. With me it’s not an antiquity illusion. I didn’t think I’d heard it before 1974 (I wouldn’t have), it’s just that it sounded like an old joke.
    The illusion is more like when people think Edward Gorey was from a hundred years ago.

  50. When you thought something was recent, but you find it in Austen, that’s the Regency illusion.

  51. AJP Crown says

    J: Rounders …“softball played with baseball equipment but without gloves”… on the money

    They are close. I played cricket and rounders as a child, and softball when I lived in New York. I enjoyed them all, perhaps rounders the most because it used the softest – despite the names – ball that I could really whack as a nine year old and I was good at running bases. After age 11, softball & esp. cricket are more strategic, psyching games, played as much in the head between batter & bowler or pitcher, as elsewhere on the field. Isn’t there something called stickball? That may be the closest in spirit to rounders which though it’s played mostly at school is more informal and fun for young kids.

    One curious thing about transatlantic sport is that what’s played more by men on one side is for women on the other. I’m currently thinking of the great US women’s soccer team but also field hockey, lacrosse, basketball – netball, and (after age 11) rounders – baseball. There may be more.

  52. Stu Clayton says

    I’m going to be unsophisticated, I give rosie’s last comment a LOL.

  53. I thought he’d drawn a parallel to the politics of the early Victorian period but in fact it was just a Regency allusion.

  54. I give rosie’s last comment a LOL.

    Same here!

  55. J.W. Brewer says

    AJPC: FWIW although the U.S. national women’s soccer team performs better than the national men’s team, this is not because soccer is predominantly a women’s/girl’s sport in the US, but is simply an artifact of the much lower degree of international competition in women’s soccer. At the college level, there are quite a number of schools that field a women’s team but not a men’s team but not the other way around, but this is a side-effect of regulatory requrements and the incentives they create (“title IX compliance”) rather than an accurate gauge of underlying enthusiasm. I’m not sure how men’s pro soccer is currently doing in the U.S. (it’s been the Next Big Thing on and off for the last 40 years …) but it exists in a way that women’s pro soccer doesn’t — and women’s pro soccer likewise doesn’t exist in the U.S. in the way that women’s pro basketball does.

    It is true that field hockey is almost exclusively a female sport in the US, although it also remains a decidedly regional sport not played at all in much of the country. Lacrosse remains similarly regional (and with a fairly similar regional footprint, although not identical), but is probably more basketball-like in M/F parity — i.e. almost as many schools field F teams as M teams at the non-pro level but the M teams generally get a somewhat bigger audience outside the immediate friends/family of the players. Volleyball skews heavily F in the US and I suspect that may not be the same in other parts of the world.

  56. AJP Crown says

    Ok, I’m all mixed up with my sports, then. I’ll retreat to the position that swimming, tennis, athletics and skiing are the ones with gender parity on both sides of the Atlantic. And I don’t mean they pay the same, obvs. What do I mean? Equal popularity & credibility, perhaps.

  57. David Marjanović says

    Volleyball skews heavily F in the US and I suspect that may not be the same in other parts of the world.

    It is in Austria (volleyball is the sport the girls had to play in school almost all the time, the boys almost never), but apparently not in Germany (Berlin has a team called “Volleys”, and the “infoscreens” on the subway act like its games are news…)

  58. I have listened to Ewan MacColl’s “Ballad Of Tim Evans” (better known as “Go Down Ye Murderers,” in spite of the fact that MacColl always says “you,” not “ye,” and the plural in “Murderers” is actually a spoiler—at least in the context of the song) a number of times over the last several weeks. It has this interesting stanza about Tim Evans (last?) meal:

    They brought his grub in on a tray,
    And eggs and meat and ham.
    And all the snout that he could smoke
    Was there at his command.

    This meaning of snout (“tobacco”), dates from the late nineteenth century according to the OED and is unclear origin. However, the similarity to snuff and the usual meaning of the word snout make me wonder if there is a connection.

  59. Marj Ketchum says

    When you snuff a candle properly it will burn brighter. When candles or firelight were the only night light, snuffing helped sore eyes see better. BTW if you blow out a candle then light the smoke far above the wick the flame will reappear.

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