Q From Bob LeDrew: Someone asked me about an expression they’d read but didn’t quite understand. The expression referred to a game being worth its candle. Can you provide any help?
A 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!)