The Excommunication of Robert the Pious (1875), by the French artist Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921)—image: Wikimedia Commons
The officiants have just excommunicated Robert by bell, book, and candle [note 1], and left the quenched candle behind.
Robert II (972-1031), known as the Pious, the son of Hugues Capet, was excommunicated for incest by Pope Gregory V after refusing to repudiate his second wife and distant cousin Berthe of Burgundy.
The English antiquary and lexicographer Francis Grose (1731-91) thus defined the phrase tace is Latin for (a) candle in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (2nd edition – London, 1788):
a jocular admonition to be silent on any subject.
The Latin tace, imperative of the verb tacere, to be silent, was defined by Grose as meaning “silence, hold your tongue”.
The Irish satirist, poet and Anglican cleric Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) used the phrase in A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation, According to the Most Polite Mode and Method Now Used at Court, and in the Best Companies of England (London, 1738), composed in the first decade of the 18th century:
Lady Smart: Well, but, after all, Tom, can you tell me what’s Latin for a Goose.
Mr Neverout: O my Lord, I know that; why Brandy is Latin for a Goose [note 2], and Tace is Latin for a Candle.
Swift’s book is a satire on the use of clichés: its purported author, Simon Wagstaff, assures “the Reader, that there is not one single witty Phrase in this whole Collection, which hath not received the Stamp and Approbation of at least one hundred Years”. The phrase tace is Latin for (a) candle was therefore already proverbial when Swift was writing.
Indeed, the English buccaneer and explorer William Dampier (1651-1715) had already mentioned it in A New Voyage round the World, first published in 1697. He wrote that, in 1686, when he was at Mindanao, in the Philippines, the Sultan presented a letter left by Captain Goodlud, “directed to any English men who should happen to come thither”. Dampier noted:
Captain Goodlud’s Letter concluded thus. Trust none of them, for they are all Thieves, but Tace is Latin for a Candle.
The phrase was later used, for example, by the English novelist Henry Fielding (1707-54) in Amelia (1751). Miss Matthews talks with Murphy, an attorney who likes to display his knowledge of Latin:
‘I am very ignorant of the law, Sir,’ cries the lady.
‘Yes, Madam,’ answered Murphy, ‘it cannot be expected you should understand it. There are very few of us who profess it, that understand the whole;—nor is it necessary we should. There is a great deal of rubbish of little use, about indictments and abatements, and bars, and ejectments, and trovers, and such stuff, with which people cram their heads to little purpose. The chapter of evidence is the main business; that is the sheet-anchor; that is the rudder which brings the vessel safe in portum. Evidence is indeed the whole, the summa totidis, for de non apparentibus et non insistentibus eandem est ratio.’
‘If you address yourself to me, Sir,’ said the lady, ‘you are much too learned, I assure you, for my understanding.’
‘Tace, Madam,’ answered Murphy, ‘is Latin for a candle: I commend your prudence. I shall know the particulars of your case when we are alone.’
The origin of tace is Latin for (a) candle is mysterious. According to the English clergyman and schoolmaster Ebenezer Cobham Brewer (1810-97) in Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (Philadelphia, 1898):
Tace is Latin for “be silent,” and candle is symbolical of light. The phrase means “keep it dark,” do not throw light upon on it. […] There is an historical allusion worth remembering. It was customary at one time to express disapprobation of a play or actor by throwing a candle on the stage [note 3], and when this was done the curtain was immediately drawn down.
In The History of the Theatres of London (London, 1796), the Irish playwright and theatre historian Walley Chamberlain Oulton gave an account of such an event, which took place at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, on 25th January 1772:
An Hour before Marriage; a petit-piece, from Moliere’s Forced Marriage.
This execrable thing met the following extraordinary damnation;—when Mr. Shuter, in the character of Sir Andrew Melville, (a Scotchman) brought on two swords to demand satisfaction for Stanley’s (Mr. Yates) refusing to marry his sister, Miss Melville, (Mrs. Mattocks) a Candle was thrown upon the Stage from the Boxes, as a signal of general censure. Upon which the curtain dropped, leaving the piece unfinished. Author unknown.
However, it remains to ascertain whether the throwing of a candle on a theatre stage was a customary way of expressing disapproval, and whether it predates the earliest occurrence of tace is Latin for (a) candle.
The English translator, antiquary and lexicographer Henry Thomas Riley (1816-78) suggested a different origin in Notes and Queries (London) of 26th August 1854:
It is not impossible that it may have been a maxim framed by some scholar, who was desirous to avoid the infliction of a “curtain lecture.”
In A Dictionary of the English Language (London, 1755), the English lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-84) defined the term curtain-lecture as “A reproof given by a wife to her husband in bed”.
1 The phrase to curse by bell, book, and candle referred to a form of excommunication which closed with the words Doe to [= shut] the book, quench the candle, ring the bell!.
2 The usual explanation of brandy is Latin for a goose is that it must be read as What is the Latin for goose? (The answer is) brandy, with a pun on the word answer: the homophonous Latin noun anser means goose, and brandy was drunk as a digestive after the eating of goose, in the same way as an answer follows a question.
A variant, brandy is Latin for fish, first appeared with the following explanation in London Labour and the London Poor (London, 1851), by Henry Mayhew (1812-87), English social researcher, journalist, playwright and advocate of reform:
We are told that the thirst and uneasy feeling at the stomach, frequently experienced after the use of the richer species of fish, have led to the employment of spirit to this kind of food. Hence, says Dr. Pereira, the vulgar proverb, “Brandy is Latin for Fish.”
I think there can be little doubt that the origin of candle-throwing to express disapproval arose from the Catholic custom of cursing by “bell, book, and candle.” When the candle was thrown down the lights were extinguished, the service concluded, and the congregation made their way out in the dark. It was the strongest possible mark of disapproval.