French Lessons: Tenir la chandelle

There are certain phrases that are just better in a foreign language. Tenir la chandelle is one of them. Think about it, what does “being the third wheel” actually mean? Tricycles exist. But the French version of the same phrase – tenir la chandelle – makes me chuckle because if you’re the odd wo/man out when hanging out with a couple, then you are “the one who holds the candle.” How romantic!

French Lessons is an ongoing series where I teach you French words and cultural lessons while beefing up my Illustrator skills.


  • As you know, Anne, i am an outsider with the English language, better skilled with les langues of Descartes and Duque de Alba, del romance y de las flores; and yet with sufficient authority to consider chandelle, as you well did , more romantic -and useless to go- than wheel.
    In a world submerged in an excess of words ; the latter become useless, worn too much; he meanwhile stays as a centered universal lack of sense amongst the sufficience and multiplicity of the meanings; for an efficient world, make it a wheel; for a monde
    d´amour; une chandelle.

    But extend the love of two -just a begin- to love of more!

  • Andi, too funny, you’ll have to drop it into conversation at dinner tonight ;)

    Nona, great minds think alike!

    Robin, at least I guess a candle is practical for light in a historic sense.

    Vive Trianon, maybe we should start speaking in “translated English” – ha!


  • I can’t say I’m familiar with the ‘third wheel’ expression. It England this was known as ‘playing the gooseberry’. I’ve got no idea where it comes from, but it’s pretty colourful too!

  • Oh! We have a similar expression in Italian “reggere il moccolo”, literally to hold the candle-end. the expression seems to date back to the 19th century: noblemen used to go to meet up with their secret love at night and they needed someone the hold a light in order to … Well, you got it, haven’t you? ;)
    Lovely blog, by the way! Elena x

  • Anne, i know many people do not like to say their artistic secrets; but how do you make your designs?

    Do you use a computer program like photoshop or similar or do you draw by hand and then scan ?

    Here is a tiling of the plane i found 4 days ago,made with European Geo Gebra, with 2 irregular equilateral polygons of 9 and 11 sides respectively. I wish i would be more artistic, less mathematical, i still do not know very well how to draw a cat or a horse or a woman if i do not see them or a snap of them.

  • The funny thing Ann, is that we also say “la cinquième roue du Carrosse” (the fifth wheel of the carriage : to mean that one is the one that should’t be there, the extra one”. So when you have 3 wheels in English, you have one useless… we need five :-)

    Thank you for these!


  • Your blog is really informative to learn french language. Everyone should improve their native language and people should take various courses for improving their language. French learner can improve their language skill by taking Language course,learning french grammar and vocabulary books , Practicing french . In this way they can improve wonderful French language .

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