“The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
— Samuel Clemens, in a letter to George Bainton, 1888
So often we see the wrong word, lightening, when we should see lightning. Here’s a light primer on some easily confused words:
Lightning: That bright flash you see during a thunderstorm that precedes the thunder.* It can burn a hole through the roof of your home, send a surge through the power grid that will destroy every electrical appliance in your home,** or kill you outright. It’s beautiful, but it’s not to be trifled with.
Lightening: Lifting a weight, whether physical or emotional. You can lighten the load by removing a few bricks from the wheelbarrow or by comforting someone who’s feeling down.
Lighting: As a noun, it’s something that is meant to produce light, such as a light bulb and its fixture. As a verb, it’s causing something to be lit, such as a cigarette (which you shouldn’t do because those things will kill you), or to be illuminated: “The president is lighting the way to a brighter future” (or so we hope).
The lightning bug, by the way, is also known as the firefly. We get lots of them around here, just as we get lots of lightning. It’s getting more difficult to write an original and interesting haiku juxtaposing these forces of nature, but I keep trying.
* If you want to know how far away the lightning is, count the seconds between seeing it and hearing the thunder and divide by five. That will give you the distance in miles.
** Most surge protectors aren’t designed to guard your computer or plasma TV or coffeemaker from lightning. Read the packaging; unless you’re spending close to $100, it’ll say something to the effect of “does not protect against lightning.” Unplug anything you can’t afford to replace.