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The meaning and origin of the expression: Hold a candle

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Hold a candle

Meaning

To compare badly to an known authority - to be unfit even to hold a subordinate position.

Origin

Apprentices used to be expected to hold the candle so that more experienced workmen were able to see what they were doing. Someone unable even to do that would be of low status indeed.

Sir Edward Dering used a similar phrase 'to hold the candle' in his The fower cardinal-vertues of a Carmelite fryar, 1641:

"Though I be not worthy to hold the candle to Aristotle."

'To hold a candle' is first recorded in 1883 in William Norris's No New Thing:

"Edith is pretty, very pretty; but she can't hold a candle to Nellie."