Whether you prefer a fancy candelabra or a glistering chandelier, they both trace back etymologically to the humble candle.
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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
The Latin verb candere means “to shine” or “to make or be white,” and from that source came the noun candela, indicating something that shined — a light, a torch, or a … well … a candle. This was adopted into Old English as candel — now spelled candle.
That’s a pretty short and straightforward word history for candle; more interesting are the changes in language around candle holders.
During those Old English times, a candle was held in a candeltreow, literally a “candle tree.” But in Latin, the device was called a candelabrum. In Old French, candelabrum became chandelabre by the 10th century and chandelier by the 14th, and it’s this last version that found its way into English — though late-14th-century Middle English texts spelled it chaundeler. (The French spelling wouldn’t be become standard in English until the 18th century.)
A person who made or sold candles was called a chandler.
Meanwhile, the Latin candelabrum spawned another candle holder. A candelabrum originally was a single candlestick; its plural is candelabra. But a single candle doesn’t provide a whole lot of light, so pieces that held two or more candles weren’t uncommon, including the kind of elaborate candelabra you might associate with Liberace or the Phantom of the Opera.
In the late 18th century, Latin was still a privileged language among the well-educated and the clergy — the people most likely to regularly see elaborate brass, silver, or gold candle holders — so it makes sense that they might reach back Latin to call them candelabra, even though the French-derived chandelier would have been perfectly fine.
But that put both candelabra and chandelier in common English use, and many snoots — especially at this time, when English grammar was still often tied to Latin grammar — disapproved of having two words for the same thing without some differentiation in the real world. Through regular usage, the difference between the two would be settled, creating a stalagmite/stalactite situation: Candelabra sit on a surface and chandeliers hang from the ceiling.
I mentioned at the start that Latin candere also means “to make or be white,” a meaning that evolved in other directions. In Roman politics, candidates — an etymological relative of candle — were so called because they wore white togas.
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All the best words have that Latin, English and French connections. I love the fancy words for candle holders (candelabra and chandelier) even if the latter has long contained electric light bulbs instead.
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