English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Shining a light on candles

Q: I have wondered how “chandler,” the word for a candle-maker, came to mean a supplier of ship’s provisions.

A: Originally, a “chandler” was someone who made or sold candles. Later on, the word was used more generally for a retailer of groceries and other goods, and eventually it came to mean a supplier specializing in grain or ships’ provisions.

That’s the short answer to your question. For the longer answer, we have go much further back and start with “candle,” one of the oldest words in the language.

“Candle” is interesting because of its great age. It’s as old as Christianity in England, making it one of the oldest Latin-derived words in English.

Candēla (from candēre, to glow or shine) is Latin for “candle” and the source of the English word.

“It probably arrived with Christianity at the end of the sixth century,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

That would mean “candle” was in use during the 500s, a century before it was recorded in English writing.

Because of its association with the new religion, “candle” had an air of sanctity to the Anglo-Saxons.

As “one of the Latin words introduced at the English Conversion,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, it was “long associated chiefly with religious observances.”

It first appeared in English writing in the Erfurt Glossary, believed to have been written somewhere in Southumbria during the last quarter of the 7th century.

Here the manuscript translates the Latin word for a pair of snuffers into Old English: “Emunctoria, candelthuist.” (A candlethuist was a scissor-like device for snuffing, or extinguishing, candles.)

In Beowulf, which may have been composed as early as 725, the word appears in a passage referring to the sun as “roderes candel” (“candle of the firmament”).

The OED notes that other terms for the sun in Old English poetry included “dæg candel” (“candle of the day”), “heofon-candel” (“heaven’s candle”), “woruld-candel” (“candle of the world”), and “Godes candel” (“God’s candle”).

But “chandler,” the word for a candle maker or seller, was a much humbler term. It came into English hundreds of years later than “candle” and from a different source—which explains its “ch-” spelling.

First recorded in the late 14th century, “chandler” came from the Anglo-Norman chandeler, derived from the Old French chandelier, meaning a candlemaker or a candlestick. (Yes, the Old French term gave us our word “chandelier,” but not until the 18th century.)

The ultimate source of “chandler” was Late Latin—the terms candēlārius (candlemaker) and candēlāria (candlestick), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Sometimes the word was used in a compound (“wax-chandler,” “tallow-chandler”) to specify what the candles were made of, beeswax or tallow (animal fats).

Oxford‘s earliest example is in a passage, dated 1389, from ordinances of early English craft guilds: “Yei shul bene at ye Chaundelers by pryme of ye day.” (“You shall be at the chandlers by early morning.”)

However, the word was already in use as an occupational surname, “Shaundeler,” as early as 1332, Chambers says.

The wider sense of “chandler” as a dealer in groceries and other provisions came into use in the late 16th century. The OED’s earliest citation, a snatch of dialogue by an Elizabethan pamphleteer, amply illustrates the meaning:

“Theodorus: Be there any Chandlers there? … What do they sell for the most part? / Amphilogus: Almost all things, as namelie butter, cheese, fagots, pots, pannes, candles, and a thousand other trinkets besides.” (From Philip Stubbes’s Anatomie of Abuses, Part II, 1583.)

As the OED notes, use of the term was “often somewhat contemptuous,” as in this line from Charles Dickens’s Sketches by “Boz” (1839): “The neighbours stigmatized him as a chandler.”

More to the point, “chandler” was also used in combination with another term to show a tradesman’s specialty. And this explains terms like “corn-chandler” (grain dealer) and “ship-chandler,” both dating from the 17th century.

Oxford defines a “ship-chandler” as “a dealer who supplies ships with necessary stores.” It’s a term that has survived into modern times.

The dictionary’s earliest example is an order by the House of Lords in 1642, authorizing inspectors to examine “what Quantities of Gunpowder is, or shall be, in the Hands of any Merchants, Ship-chandlers, Grocers, Societies, or Companies.” (We’ve expanded the quotation to provide context.)

Sometimes, when the “ship-” designation isn’t necessary, a maritime supplier is referred to simply as a “chandler.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.