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The meaning and origin of the expression: Not worth the candle

Not worth the candle

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Not worth the candle'?

Something might be considered to be 'not worth the candle' if is too insignificant or worthless to be worth bothering with.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Not worth the candle'?

Not worth the candleThis phrase relates to occupations, games etc. that were thought so lacking in merit that it wasn't worth the expense of a candle to create enough light to partake in them. Candles were as significant a drain on household expenses as is the electricity bill today. There are several phrases in English that express regret at having wasted valuable candlelight. The best known is the Biblical 'light under a bushel', which appears in several of the gospels - for example, Luke 11:33 (King James Version), 1611:

No man, when he hath lighted a candle, putteth it in a secret place, neither under a bushel, but on a candlestick, that they which come in may see the light.

Stephen Gosson's The ephemerides of Phialo... And a short apologie of The schoole of abuse, 1579:

"I burnt one candle to seek another, and lost bothe my time and my trauell [work]."

William Lambarde's, Eirenarcha, 1581:

I shal but set a Candle in the Sunshine.

'Not worth the candle' is ultimately of French origin. It appears in Randle Cotgrave's A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, 1611, where it is listed as:

"Le jeu ne vaut pas la chandelle."

Cotgrave translated that into English as "it will not quit cost".

The first known printed record of the phrase in English is in Sir William Temple's Works, circa 1690:

"Perhaps the Play is not worth the Candle."

See also, hold a candle and burning the candle at both ends.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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