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Tenir la chandelle

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Tenir la chandelle

Tenir la chandelle may sound like an easy task but it can leave you desperate for an escape plan!  Tenir is to hold and une chandelle is an old word for une bougie, a candle.

To hold the candle means to be the third wheel, i.e. the unwanted person tagging along in a group of two or more people. In a looser application, it also means feeling left out or unnoticed, being the odd person in a conversation or any other lively situation.  The wheel metaphor conjures up the image of a bicycle, where only two wheels are necessary - and the third of little use.  But what about the French candle?

Origin

Once upon a time, the lightbulb didn't exist.  As we stare at our ultrabright, high resolution screens, it may be hard to imagine, but centuries ago, the world was literally a darker place.  Anything you wanted to do after dark required the (dim) light of a candle.  If you belonged to the aristocracy, you relied on a multitude of servants to do just about everything for you throughout the day.  And at night, you needed them to hold the candle for you.  Sometimes couples even needed a little assistance and illumination....in bed!  In modern times we might talk about "dimming the lights" or using "mood lighting" for this occasion.  But what were lamp-deprived twosomes to do back in the day?  Enlist the help of a third person to hold the candle!  That's right.

In the case of royal marriages, which often doubled as political alliances, these candleholders also had the important responsibility of (supposedly) confirming that those high-stake unions had been consummated.

While this role did not survive the advent of electricity, the expression tenir la chandelle did - albeit drastically watered down. It is still used to describe the uncomfortable feeling of being the invisible person in a group - particularly if it is a group of two romantically invoved people.

Examples

Ils m'ont invitée à les accompagner au restaurant mais je n'avais pas envie de tenir la chandelle!
They invited me to go with them to the restaurant , but I had no desire of being the third wheel!

A chaque fois qu'on se retrouve avec ces gens-là, j'ai l'impression de tenir la chandelle; je ne me sens pas vraiment inclu.
Everytime we get together with this group, I feel like the odd one who doesn't quite belong.

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