To play gooseberry

My recent entry on berries reminded me of an email I received from a friend, quite a while back, following a conversation where we debated the origin of "playing gooseberry":

I did a quick Google search on "playing gooseberry" (as in being the "third wheel") and came across the following link, which suggests that "gooseberry" is a euphemism for the devil. What do you think?

Why not? "Gooseberry" is indeed one of the many names given to the devil, and there is no doubt that he would be an undesirable third party in any tryst. However, the Bloomsbury dictionary of word origin suggests another origin:

"play gooseberry", or to be an uncomfortably superfluous 3rd person between two lovers, goes back to the early 19th century and may have originated in the notion of a chaperone (ostensibly) occupying herself with picking gooseberries while the couple being chaperoned did what they were doing (gooseberry-picker was an early 19th century term for a chaperone).

The Oxford English Dictionary confirms this use of "gooseberry-picker", so this explanation looks quite convincing.
In French, the equivalent expression is « tenir la chandelle » (to hold the candle). The Dictionnaire d’expressions et locutions tells us that one custom around the wedding night used to involve a best man, who had to provide light for the newlyweds. He would turn his back on them while holding a candle.
I think I’d rather be a gooseberry-picker than a candle-holder.

By |2016-10-18T15:49:52+00:00June 21st, 2007|Idioms|12 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Nicolas B June 21, 2007 at 2:23 pm

    Indeed, I’d rather be a gooseberry-picker than a candle-holder myself 😉 Even though I am a native French speaker, I did not even know where the expression “tenir la chandelle” originated from… This was quite a clever demonstration 😉 By the way, I’d like to congratulate you on this fantastic wealth of information which your blog sure is. Keep on blogging 🙂

  2. travis June 21, 2007 at 8:08 pm

    I’m new to nakedtranslations and should confess at the start that I’m not an interpreter or translator of French. Though I do speak the language. (I used to be an interpreter for the deaf using Sign Language) I figured there would be a lot of things I could learn about translation by checking in on this blog from time to time. Like fish and hardware, fruit is something I only generally understand in French. When following the link to your blog on berries, I was surprised to see many of the French words listed that I’d heard for years, and assumed they were edible, but had no idea they were berries. In fact, there are more berries in English than I would have guessed. Half of their names were Greek to me. So perhaps I’ll learn as much English on this site as French. Your site looks like a fun way to become informed.

  3. Xavier Kreiss June 21, 2007 at 10:08 pm

    Brewer’s dictionary of Phrase anb Fable goes for the gooseberry picking.
    BTW (hope this isn’t off-topic) has anyone ever eaten these berries with mackerel? The combination, apparently, is delicious (if you like mackerel). And, of course, it has given the fruit its French name.

  4. céline June 21, 2007 at 10:33 pm

    YUM! I’m going to try that asap. What do you mean, it has given the fruit its French name?

  5. Xavier Kreiss June 21, 2007 at 11:28 pm

    Gooseberry: groseille à maquereau. I seem to remember that the French name for the fruit is due to the fact that it goes well with mackerel.

  6. Jean June 22, 2007 at 11:30 am

    I’ve always thought gooseberry was amazingly evocative of the way one feels as the spare person in these situations: green, a bit sour and a bit hairy…

  7. Fellippe Heitor June 22, 2007 at 1:22 pm

    I’m a from Brazil and I would never have imagined that the expression “to hold the candle” was present “as is” in other languages! It has always amazed me how some popular sayings and expressions are so similar in sometimes so different languages (English and Portuguese, for example, with “Do not look a gift horse in the mouth.” and “De cavalo dado não se olha os dentes”) and it always made me wonder where those had come from. The Bible, maybe? 😀
    Here in Brazil we say “segurar a vela” which is the exact translation of “tenir la chandelle”! And I had always thought it had originated here (in my head I imagined a couple on a romantic night in a restaurant with the candle having to be held by someone else, for some odd reason!).
    We, sometimes, don’t even say it anymore: when we notice that we are holding the candle, we just show our hands pretending to be actually holding one (which usually causes the couple to smile, when they hadn’t noticed that they’d just made us hold it – you know, sometimes it’s just a friendly conversation between three friends and suddenly you get deleted from the “chat list”).
    How do Spanish and Italian speakers “hold the candle”?

  8. Baltic Polyglottic June 25, 2007 at 11:11 am

    I am confused with the berries. Groseille is red currant in English, isn’it it? But how do you say goosberry in French then? And which one do you go to pick?

  9. James June 25, 2007 at 9:01 pm

    In spanish I know two: in Chile they say “tocar el violín”, and in Spain “hacer de carabina”
    No idea why on either: I am imagining the Chilean expression is to do with a romantic seranade. the other one…. (shrugs) carabina is “carbine”, though I am not actually sure what a carbine is anyway…

  10. Valerie June 25, 2007 at 10:20 pm

    Apparently, in Tunisia Tenir la chandelle refers to the man holding the candle outside the room of newlyweds to check the virginity of the spouse…

  11. céline June 26, 2007 at 11:33 am

    Baltic Polygottic: I must apologize, the confusion is due to me cutting corners. Red currant = groseille, gooseberry = groseille à maquereau. I’ve changed the list.

  12. kevin June 28, 2007 at 6:49 am

    Somewhere in the past year or so, I read that a “gooseberry” was an English slang expression fro someone who acts as a helper for someone who is away from their home. They would collect their mail and water their flowers etc. Could what I read be wrong ?

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