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French phrase of the day: Tenir la chandelle

If a friend asks you to 'hold the candle' in France, you should read this before accepting.

French phrase of the day: Tenir la chandelle
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Why do I need to know tenir la chandelle?

Because once you know its backstory, this expression is absolutely canny.

What does it mean?

Tenir la chandelle means 'to hold the candle', which is the French metaphor for 'third wheeling'.

It's for romantic settings only, that awkward situation of being the person having to watch two others really hitting it off and being eager to make oneself scarce as the first opportunity.

Tenir la chandelle implies feeling superfluous, even unwanted –  what in English is sometimes known as 'feeling like a gooseberry'.


While not instinctively obvious, tenir la chandelle is actually a pretty logical expression once you know its origins.

Back in the day, before electricity and lightbulbs revolutionised how we live, you needed candles to see at night. 

Holding the candle during romantic dinners was therefore a tedious task pushed onto valets or servants who turned their backs to the couple so as not to disturb, which must have been excruciatingly awkward at times.

Use it like this

C'est la dernère fois que je tiens la chandelle toute la soirée. – That's the last time I'm playing gooseberry all night.

Si tu ne viens pas alors moi non plus, je n'ai pas envie de tenir la chandelle toute la journée. – If you're not going I don't want to come either, I don't want to be a third wheel all night.

Ce qui est cool avec eux, c'est que je n'ai jamais l'impression de tenir la chandelle quand on sort tous les trois. – What's cool about them is that I never feel like I'm third wheeling when we go out all three of us.

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For members


French Expression of the Day: Tarte à la crème

This expression is more than just your last order at the boulangerie.

French Expression of the Day: Tarte à la crème

Why do I need to know tarte à la crème ?

Because if someone uses this phrase to describe you, you should probably be a bit offended.

What does it mean?

Tarte à la crème – pronounced tart ah lah krem – literally refers to a cream filled tart, or a custard tart, in English. However, this expression has more to do than just baking. It is another way of describing something that is boring, predictable or commonplace.

This expression comes straight from Moliere himself. In the 17th century, there was a popular rhyming game called “Corbillon.” The phrase “Je vous passe mon corbillon” (I pass you by corbillon) is said, and then it is followed by “Qu’y met-on?” (What does one put on it?) To keep the rhyme up, people must respond with something ending in an -ON sound.

In the play, “L’Ecole des Femmes” (The School of Wives), one character says the ideal woman would respond to the question with “tarte à la crème” which is obviously the wrong answer. The right answer would be tarte à la citron (lemon tart). Molière did this on purpose to poke fun at the fact that disgruntled fans would send poor actors cream tarts to express their frustration.

It was a way of ridiculing his critics and showing he was unimpressed by their method of showing discontentment at his plays. Over time, the phrase went on to describe things that are commonplace or boring. It is often used to describe entertainment related topics, such as books, movies, or plays.

A synonym for this phrase in French might be banal and in English you might say something is ‘vanilla’ to describe something that is fairly unexciting.

Use it like this

Le film était vraiment tarte à la crème. Je ne recommande pas d’aller le voir au cinéma, vous pouvez attendre de le voir une fois qu’il sera gratuit en ligne. – The movie was really boring. I don’t recommend going to see it at the movies, you can simply wait to see it once it is free online.

Je pense que l’album est tarte à la crème. Elle a pris tellement d’idées d’autres artistes que ce n’est vraiment pas original du tout. – I think the album is predictable. She really took plenty of ideas from other artists and it was not original at all.