The word candle derives from the Old English word candel, which ultimately comes from the Latin noun candēla and the verb candēre, which means “to shine”. It was Roman merchants and soldiers in Britain from 43BC-c450AD that brought us this Latin word of the Church, since candles were often used in association with religious observations.
But the word candle hasn’t always been used to describe this long cylindrical column of wax with a wick that can be lit to illuminate surroundings. In the 17th and 18th century, physicians borrowed the term candle to describe a surgical instrument, made of rolled up waxed linen that used for insertion into the body, which was known as a bougie. Bougie is French for “wax candle”, and this came from the Algerian town of Bougie (or Bijiyah in Arabic), which traded in wax. The term bougie first appeared in William Smellie’s A treatise on the theory and practice of midwifery (1754–64) where he described a surgical procedure: “He introduced a large bougie which went up a great way”. But it’s an excerpt from John Abernethy’s Surgical observations (1804) which offers more of an insight into the use of this instrument: “I introduced a small hollow bougie..into the œsophagus, and injected half a pint of milk and water”.
Back to the candle as we understand it today, it’s primary function was to illuminate spaces and was made from a variety of materials including oil produced from sperm whales, rapeseed oil (as a cheaper alternative), bone fat and industrial greases. But these many different ways to produce candles and at cheaper prices, the invention of the incandescent light bulb brought an end to demand and these days candles are used mainly for decoration or as a part of aromatherapy. In the same way, expressions used in English which included the word candle are now rare. These include: “to hold a candle to the devil”, which was used to describe the action of assisting in some kind of evil activity; “to smell of the candle” meaning close or prolonged study; and, perhaps the more well known expression, “to burn the candle at both ends”, which as Jonas Hanway explains as people who are “apt to consume too much, and work too little” (An historical account of the British trade over the Caspian Sea, 1753).