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In Maltese English, whenever items in a list are preceded by letters or Roman numerals instead of numbers, we would say that the list is made up of candles. Let us suppose we have the following two lists.

List 1

a) Item X

b) Item Y

c) Item Z

List 2

i) Item X

ii) Item Y

iii) Item Z

If I want to refer to the first item of List 1, I would say "candle a", and if I want to refer to the first item of List 2, I would say "candle one" (the "i" is pronounced as "one").

Is this seen in other forms of English?


EDIT

I am just realising that we also do the same whenever a list is numbered - we would still use "candle" in that instance, too

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  • I've seen this usage maybe twice in my 73 years. I assumed that the character "i" was being referred to metaphorically as a "candle".
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 10, 2022 at 19:33
  • I think the same, Hot Licks. Somehow its use has extended to listed items preceded by a letter, though. Aug 10, 2022 at 19:57
  • I've never encountered this at all: "candle one" would be incomprehensible to me. With the explanation that the Roman numeral 'i' looked like a candle, I would assume that the speaker was an uneducated child.
    – Greybeard
    Aug 10, 2022 at 20:10
  • I didn't even know there was such a thing as Maltese English.
    – Robusto
    Aug 10, 2022 at 20:45
  • @Robusto, English is an official language in Malta, but if you were to observe how it's spoken by most Maltese speakers, you'd see that we tend to use phrases that you'd never find in other forms of English. Aug 10, 2022 at 20:51

1 Answer 1

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It is a rather peculiar usage in Maltese English (Maltenglish) and I don't believe it is used in other varieties of English; possibly only facetiously for the lower case Roman numerals 'i', 'ii', and 'iii' in rare cases, as the lower case Roman numeral for one (and the letter), 'i', resembles a candle with flickering flame. It might be originated from this analogy and expanded from there.

Another conjecture about its origin might be the candle clocks (time candles) where candles and Roman numerals were used together. A candle clock is an ancient invention that was used to measure time. Candles with marks round the sides showed the time intervals; and as the candle burned down and the marks disappeared, you could measure the time that has passed. The marks were often Roman numerals showing the hours from X to VII; and they were going from up to down like a numbered list. Here is a photo of a candle clock from The Finnish Museum of Horology in Espoo:

enter image description here


As a reference, The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (edited by Tom Dalzell, Terry Victor) lists two definitions for the slang candle, one in UK and one in US English:

1 a semi-solid stalactite of nasal mucus UK

  • He would pinch his yellow nostrils and surreptitiously wipe the residue of his “candle” on to anything within his reach[.] — Brian McDonald, Elephant Boys, p. 168, 2000

2 an emergency flare US

  • — Montie Tak, Truck Talk, p. 26, 1971

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