Like a moth to a flame

What is the meaning of the phrase ‘Like a moth to a flame’?

With a very strong attraction. (Usually in a bad way.)

What is the origin of the phrase ‘Like a moth to a flame’?

While it’s not yet established when the phrase was used, it is believed to have derived form the 17th century. It originates from the behaviour of moths, who are intensely attracted to both light and heat individually, and even more so when found together.

Once a moth has a bright light or flame in its sights, it will immediately make its way over, and hover around it, seemingly fascinated and entranced by it, as though it held the moth under a hypnotic trance.

This would have been very bad news for the moth, because the flame could cause the moth’s wings to burn if it got too close, and lead the moth to an untimely demise.

The phrase is most often used as a metaphor to depict the attraction by a person or animal to either another person or animal, or some other object of desire.

However because such an attraction is generally a very bad sign for the moth, people often use the phrase to refer to a negative attraction to someone or something. For example, if someone was stuck in an abusive or toxic relationship, they could be described as being like a moth to a flame.

Similarly, the phrase could also be used to refer to an addiction to any activity or substance that might have a harmful effect, including but not limited to illegal drugs, nicotine products, or even certain foods. It can also be used to refer to the hold bad habits can have.

The phrase is frequently used in love stories and erotica, as well as on TV dramas and films.

What are some notable uses of the phrase ‘Like a moth to a flame’?

The world’s most famous wordsmith, William Shakespeare referred to a moth in one of his comedies, specifically The Merchant of Venice, released in 1596. Portia says to Nerissa:

“Thus hath the candle singed the moth.

O these deliberate fools! When they do choose,

They have the wisdom by their wit to lose.”

Here, she is referring to ‘fools’ who, due to their attraction, found their downfall.

Much more recently, in 2021, the band Swedish House Mafia, together with the Canadian singer-songwriter the Weeknd, released a song called ‘Moth to a flame’ 

Cari Mayhew - Author at Phrase Finder

Cari Mayhew

Lifelong learner, phrase fanatic, and lover of literature across multiple genres. Cari Mayhew has a passion for expression, and a keen curiosity for how phrases begin and how their use transforms over time. She is often found looking for the ideal idiom to convey her thoughts and musings.