French phrase of the day: Tenir la chandelle

French phrase of the day: Tenir la chandelle
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
If a friend asks you to 'hold the candle' in France, you should read this before accepting.

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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