There is the following passage in Jeffery Archer’s fiction, “Be careful what you wish for”:

“If Diego failed to turn up, Cedric had already decided that the game wouldn’t be worth the candle, to quote Mr. Sherlock Homes. He couldn’t risk placing all his shares on the Market while Diego remained in London, because if he did, it would be (Diego’s father) Matinez who would end up blowing the candle out." – Page 325.

I checked the meaning of “worth the candle” on Google, and found the following definition in dictionary.reference.com.;

"The returns from an activity or enterprise do not warrant the time, money or effort required. This expression, which began as a translation of a term used by the French essayist Michel de Montaigne in 1580, alludes to gambling by candlelight, which involved the expense of illumination. If the winnings were not sufficient, they did not warrant the expense. Used figuratively, it was a proverb within a century.”

Jeffery Archer says it’s a quote from Sherlock Homes, namely Arthur Conan Doyle.

dictionary.reference.com, claims it’s the term invented by Michel de Montaigne. Which is right?

If it’s from Montaigne’s “The Essay” (or Sherlock Homes stories), what is the English version of the original text of the passage including this phrase?

  • I don't know, so this is a wild guess. I assume that before electric lights, candles wouldn't generally have been considered very valuable, but after dark you'd need a candle to see whatever you were looking at (or perhaps, making). – FumbleFingers Jul 2 '15 at 12:15
  • 4
    I often quote my Uncle Victor, who was fond of the phrase an ample sufficiency. However, that does not mean that he originated the phrase. – Araucaria Jul 2 '15 at 13:42
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers: I assume that before electric lights, candles wouldn't generally have been considered very valuable => actually candles were very valuable, valued and costly in medieval times. – Matthieu M. Jul 2 '15 at 14:33
  • @Matthieu M.: Yeah, yeah. I'm sure there were always expensive candles. But even the lowliest peasant could probably stick a bit of twine in a lump of fat and set light to it if he needed to see at night. Given the metaphoric usage clearly predates the industrial revolution, I seriously doubt it was inspired by significant earlier literal use. You might as well say That's not worth tuppence has some meaningful link to the fact that hundreds of years ago two pence represented a significant amount of money to many of the peasantry. – FumbleFingers Jul 2 '15 at 14:51
up vote 10 down vote accepted

The Facts on File Dictionary of Proverbs confirms its French origin and de Montaigne as its first user. Conan Doyle just used it in later years.

According to The Wordsworth Dictionary of Idiom the saying is a translation from the French:

  • le jeu n'en vaut la chandelle.

and the Allen's Dictionary of English Phrases confirms the same origin.

It may be the case that it was a common saying in medieval times that was registrered in writing at some point by some writer (apparently de Montaigne):

According World Wide Words it refer to a medieval saying:

  • The more usual form of this expression is not worth the candle. It dates from medieval times, when any night-time activity had to be lit by candles, which were expensive. So some activity that wasn’t worth the candle wasn’t worth the cost of supplying the light to see it by. It’s only now, when the obvious link between the situation and the expression has been lost as a result of changing technology, that people can use forms like not worth its candle, subtly shifting the sense and making it harder to understand.

  • Incidentally, candles played such a large part in life in the centuries before whale oil lamps, gas and electricity successively appeared that several expressions are connected with them, such as can’t hold a candle to him, meaning that a person isn’t fit even to hold the candle for somebody else to work. Another is burn the candle at both ends, to be spendthrift, to expend one’s effort too lavishly, or try to do too much at once. (As Edna St Vincent Millay put it:

  • (My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends — It gives a lovely light!)

And The Phrase Finder seems to confirm:

  • This 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]."

Holmes is impossible, Montaigne unlikely.

In English "not worth the candle" is found in Temple's Works (approximately 1690) "To use a French proverb, 'The play was not worth the candle'", and the use of "the play" supports the gambling origin. At least one internet source (can't find the link) suggested that "play" is used in the theatrical sense, so the phrase refers to a play which is not worth the cost of lighting the theater (by candle-light). In French, a theatrical play is "une piece", and is inconsistent with the original proverb - see below.

It cannot be said that Doyle popularized the phrase in English - it was fairly common for a century before Holmes' use in The Sign of the Four (1890), and had greatly increased in popularity during the preceding 30 years. https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=not+worth+the+candle&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cnot%20worth%20the%20candle%3B%2Cc0

enter image description here

The French proverb, "Le jeu ne vaut pas la chandelle." is found in Cotgrave's A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, 1611.

Since Montaigne (1533 - 1592) predates this, he is possibly the originator. Les Essais de Montaigne were first published in 1580. However, although the proverb is widely attributed to the 16th century, I have never seen it attributed to Montaigne by any Francophone source.

  • Can you provide a link to your reference please. – user66974 Jul 2 '15 at 13:04
  • Is 1611 the first date of known usage in France? – user66974 Jul 2 '15 at 13:11
  • @Josh61: Here's the link to Cotgrave's 1611 dictionary. Since it's a dictionary, it was presumably already a well-known French idiom. – Peter Shor Jul 2 '15 at 13:26
  • @PeterShor - so that does not rule out the de Montaighe hypothesis. – user66974 Jul 2 '15 at 13:29
  • 1
    It doesn't. But I'd suspect Montaigne was using an already-known idiom. I'd like to see the Montaigne in the original. – Peter Shor Jul 2 '15 at 13:30

In events, I carry myself like a man; in the conduct, like a child. The fear of the fall more fevers me than the fall itself. The game is not worth the candle. The covetous man fares worse with his passion than the poor, and the jealous man than the cuckold; and a man ofttimes loses more by defending his vineyard than if he gave it up.

"On Presumption"

Montaigne is not speaking about practical gambling risks, but about the fear of failure.

It's possible both versions are true. Maybe Sir Arthur Conan Doyle picked up the phrase through Montaigne, found it apt, and echoed it through Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes is a more common read than Montaigne nowadays. Maybe Mr. Archer found the phrase in Sherlock Holmes and assumed it was the original. So his reference does due deference but doesn't go all the way back. :P

  • 1
    Or, maybe he's read both and likes Sherlock Holmes more. – kirk Jul 2 '15 at 12:58

Your Answer

 
discard

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.