A Turn of Phrase

I suspect this is the sixth or seventh time I’ve written about the French phrase, Le jeu n’en vaut pas la chandelle, translated into English as “the game is not worth the candle.” The phrase sums up feelings of depression as well as any phrase could hope to do. But it was not born of depression. It was born as a way of expressing the value, or lack thereof, of engaging in an action by measuring the action’s rewards. The stories I’ve read about the original French phrase suggest it was uttered when the potential winnings involved in an evening card game were insufficient to cover the cost of the candle required to illuminate the game room. The earliest reference to the phrase that I’ve found (or that I remember) is by essayist Michel de Montaigne in 1580; I found that in an English translation of a French website. In English language resources, it’s said the first publication of the term was from 1611, when an English lexicographer named Randle Cotgrave compiled A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues. Cotgrave’s English translation of the French phrase was “it will not quit cost.” The phrase, in English, is said to have first appeared around 1690 in Sir William Temple’s Works. I tend to believe it probably was Michel de Montaigne who coined the phrase or, at least, first published it. Not that it matters. What matters is the phrase itself and its remarkable economy of words to express something so profound.

I, who tend to use thirty words when three will do, am an odd one to wax poetic about the economy of words. But I do value elegant linguistic economy; perhaps more in others than in myself.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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