Holding a Candle to Sayings

24th August 2014

Every culture has its own sayings, phrases and idioms which are used as metaphors and similes for real life situations, but where do they come from? Here is an explanation of 5 sayings which have interesting histories.

1. Hold a candle

Apprentices would literally hold the candle for their masters so that they could see what they were doing. To not be fit to hold a candle to someone is to not even to be worthy to be their apprentice.

The first recorded use of holding a candle to something in a non-literal way is in William Norris’s No New Thing (1883):

“Edith is pretty, very pretty; but she can’t hold a candle to Nellie.”

2. Turn a blind eye

In 1809, Clarke and M’Arthur published an account of the naval battle of Copenhagen in 1801. After Admiral Sir Hyde Parker sent a signal for Nelson to withdraw, they write that his actual words were:

[Putting the glass to his blind eye] “You know, Foley, I have only one eye – and I have a right to be blind sometimes… I really do not see the signal.”

Sometime later, but within 22 years of this battle, “turn a blind eye” had become a widely known phrase meaning to ignore something you know to be true or real.

3. Crocodile tears

The myth that crocodiles weep whilst devouring their prey can be traced back to 1400s. In fact, crocodiles can produce tears to lubricate their eyes in the same way that humans do. However, the notion that they cry with emotion has long been dismissed and, subsequently, so has the myth.

The use of the term “crocodile tears” to mean insincere sadness or remorse did not appear in writing until the 16th century, when Edmund Grindal, Archbishop of York and of Canterbury, wrote:

“I begin to fear, lest his humility … be a counterfeit humility, and his tears crocodile tears.”

4. The hair of the dog

The full version of this phrase is “the hair of the dog that bit me”. In mediaeval times some people thought that if you were bitten by a dog with rabies, you could cure it by applying hair from that dog to the wound.

Similarly, having a drink the morning after the night before is widely believed to be an effective hangover cure. This is not a recent idea but has actually been since around the early 1500s.

5. Read the riot act

The 1714 ‘Riot Act’, also known as ‘An act for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters‘, was read to any group large enough which the local magistrate thought might be a problem. If the group did not disperse after the Act had been read, they would be arrested and would be sentenced to up to 3 years in prison.


Is your favourite saying missing from the list? Check out The Phrase Finder to read about the history of hundreds of different sayings.



Martin, G. (1996-2014), The Phrase Finder, http://www.phrases.org.uk/index.html, accessed 19/08/2014

If you liked this share it

facebook google+ twitter

Back to posts