Word Nerd: Lightening in a Bottle

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Today’s Word Nerd was suggested by one of my friends, but I can’t remember exactly whom. I expect I’ll hear from them for it, but I suspect it was either Diana, Ysela, Clarmarie or my sister-in-law Katrina. Maybe Sue. Or Shelly. Marlene? That’s the peril of having literate friends. I’m fairly certain it was a woman, because my male friends mostly just say “are you still going on about words? Give it a rest, man!”

art © by Jim MacQuarrie
art © by Jim MacQuarrie

Today’s words actually started out as the same word, but now they have different meanings.

Lightening: to make something less dark, to illuminate or brighten.
Lightning: an electrical discharge from the atmosphere.

Lightening is a Middle English word, going back to the early 1500s, meaning exactly what it sounds like. Since spelling was more or less arbitrary in those days, with words changing spelling from one sentence to another, it’s not surprising that “lightning” was used interchangeably with “lightening” to mean the same thing; gradually it came to refer only to the bright bolts of electricity that sometimes illuminated the night sky. Today, lightning refers to one particular kind of lightening.

If you say “I’m thinking about lightning my hair,” you’re suggesting getting electrocuted in the head.

If you say “he moves like lightening,” you’re saying he travels at the speed of the sunrise.

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