Sunday, September 07, 2014

Holy language, Batman!

Not being a Catholic, I am unfamiliar with many of the trappings of the church and their functions. I once put a cigarette out in what I later learned was holy water (in my defense, I was young, and the church was a very modern building. The stoups looked like ash trays placed at the entrance for that very purpose). Since then, I've visited many Catholic churches and cathedrals as a tourist, looking at architecture, art, and glorious windows. I've noticed and learned about the many things these places have in common, like "the stations of the cross," the autel (altar), the pulpit in the nave, and the candles.

These are cierges. I didn't see any veilleuses at this spot, but they must be somewhere.

The French have many words for candle: une chandelle (the origin of chandelier), une bougie (also the word for spark plug), and un cierge are a few that I'm familiar with. Candles that are lit in churches are referred to as cierges. They are tall and thin, just like the ones pictured here. However, the use of the word veilleuses in this context is new to me. It refers to what I would call a votive, a short and thick candle that burns inside a small glass container (called a photophore in French, into which you insert une bougie chauffe-plat, which I would call a tea light). Typically, the word veilleuse means "nightlight" or any small low-wattage light that remains lit. For example, the parking lights on cars are called veilleuses. So my visit to the église St.-Martin in Ligueil early last week was educational: I learned that the votives used in churches and cathedrals in France are also called veilleuses.


  1. Thank you for that - very interesting for a candle loving girl! Why is it I can easily remember random words in French, like these, but grammar just won't seat in the brain?! :-)

  2. In my place there are so many stuff like this.

  3. Now, I was JUST introducing the word bougie to my French 3 classes, and telling them that the word chandelle exists, also, but I don't really know when to use it... just that bougie is what they should expect to use for most times they need to refer to a candle. And... here you are posting about it! This info about veilleuse and cierge is interesting-- thanks.

    When does one use chandelle?

    1. Hi Judy,

      Chandelle and bougie are two old words going back to the middle ages. The same thing, two different names.
      Chandelle, for whatever reason, is mostly obsolete. Bougie is now the only one in use.

      However there is a number of expressions with chandelle, still in use:
      brûler la chandelle par les deux bouts   
      devoir une fière chandelle  
      faire des économies de bouts de chandelle
      en voir trente-six chandelles
      le jeu n'en vaut pas la chandelle

      As far as I know cierge is only used in a church context.

    2. Judy, there are these expressions too:

      un dîner aux chandelles — dinner by candlelight
      une chandelle romaine — a roman candle

  4. They are lovely, regardless of their name.

  5. And then there's:
    Au clair de la lune,
    Mon ami Pierrot,
    Prête-moi ta plume
    Pour écrire un mot.
    Ma chandelle est morte,
    Je n´ai plus de feu,
    Ouvre-moi ta porte,
    Pour l´amour de Dieu.


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