Giovanni Ruffini? Mustafa Kemal Atatürk? Charles Wiseman? Edward Bulwer-Lytton? Emir Abdelkader? Henry Ward Beecher? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Being a teacher is wonderfully fulfilling, but it is also exhausting. The following astute simile reflects this tension:
A teacher is like a candle that consumes itself to light the way for others.
This saying has been credited to the Italian poet Giovanni Ruffini and the Turkish statesman Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: This saying is difficult to trace because it can be expressed in many ways. The earliest close match located by QI appeared in a 1764 book titled “A Complete English Grammar on a New Plan” by Charles Wiseman. While discussing figurative language Wiseman presented a collection of example similes; four are shown below. Interestingly, a candle was likened to an “author” instead of a “teacher”; both may serve an educational role. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
- Like snow that melts away on the ground as it falls, i.e. words
- Like a candle which lights others, and burns out itself, i.e. an author, or
- Like a dog in a wheel that toils to roast meat for others eating, i.e. an author
- Like a bucket at the bottom of a deep well, he must labour hard that will draw it up, i.e. truth
Wiseman presented thirty-two similes in this textbook section, and QI conjectures that most of them were already in circulation; thus, he may be credited with popularizing the candle simile but not constructing it.
Giovanni Ruffini was born in 1807, and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was born in 1881; hence, neither crafted this simile.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.