The Difference Between the Lighting and the Lightning Bug

This post is  the first in a series that I am working on which discusses words, the very building blogs of a writer’s work.  Join me today as I discuss some of my favorite words, interesting facts about the English language, and cultural observations about language from when I lived in Zinacantan and began learning Tzotzil.

Mark Twain once wrote, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”  (letter to George Bainton, Oct 1888).  It is a wonderful quote, with a startling, beautiful image, and captures well the importance of finding the right word.  As a poet, I have a particular love of words and finding the right one to convey an emotion, moment or image.  Do I want to describe the trees as having bony fingers? Or slender ones?  One of my favorite words is quiescence.  It reminds me of the surface of a still pond. Senescence and evanescence are also beautiful. Interestingly, my dad and my sister hate the word moist, it makes them shudder.  (I read somewhere that moist has a similar effect on other people, and that particular words can cause some people to fell sick. Do any of you have aversions to certain words?). In Spanish, some of my favorite words are tierra, arcoiris, tortilla, lluvia; I love the sounds of the double rr and double ll.

The English language has an enormous vocabulary, which is useful for writers, though sometimes frustrating to people who learn it as a second language.  “Why does English have so many words for the same thing?” a friend recently complained to me. I don’t remember what she gave as an example but one that comes to my mind right now:  Stone. Rock. Pebble.  Do we need three different words for essentially the same thing? Perhaps not.  But I love the different feel of these three words, the specificity of each.  (I realize that pebble is probably the most specific of the three, as the other two can be used in different contexts. Calvin, you are the rock expert. How different are these words really?)

English also has the ability to rapidly pick up new words; it is constantly being reinvented and added to.  This is something that Laurie Boris comments on in this blog post.  She worries about the ways in which our use of English is becoming increasingly informal through the use of acronyms and texting.   However, she also acknowledges that “old expressions have their way of hanging on and easing us into the future.  We still say “dial” the phone even though we no longer have dials on our phones. We “cc” colleagues who may never have seen carbon paper. Collections of published music are still called “albums” even though they may only exist as electronic files.”  It is curious how some words continue to be used, while others become obsolete.  This site here has a bunch of words that (literally) shout out to be rescued.  Personally I like sparsile and woundikin.

Words and language are also reflective of culture, as I was reminded while living in Mexico.  In Tzotzil there is no word for hello, the greeting upon arriving at a house is mi’ li’ote which literally means “are you there?” The response is li’one: “I am here.” Furthermore there is no goodbye but rather many forms of see you later:  ok’ob to, see you tomorrow, likelto, see you in a little while, and tanato, see you this afternoon.  In a small village where most people know each other and few ever permanently leave, perhaps there is no need for goodbye.  See you later is accurate for most cases.  In the case of my final departure, we used the Spanish, adios, goodbye, or literally, “to god.”

Tzotzil is a difficult language to learn full of aspirations, and possibly more closely related to Japanese and other Asian languages than Spanish. (Dan, you might be interested in knowing that there was a Japanese woman who lived in the village who once commented to me that there are some words that are exactly the same in both languages.) It was interesting how learning enough Tzotzil to answer basic questions like Kusi habi? Bu chabat? Bu likemot? (what is your name? where are you going? Where are you from?) helped give me a place in the village. It lent legitimacy to the sentence “I live here in the village” when I could say it in their own language. Nakalon ta jlumaltike. Although my vocabulary was actually quite small and I never got beyond the basics, I really enjoyed learning another language, learning new words. I also made my share of mistakes, like messing up the words v’oh and vo, which sounds almost identical, but mean water and fly respectively. Yes, there is water, no, there are no flies in it.

Which brings me back to the first point of this post: there is a great difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.  (And also moca and moco, a mistake I made in Spanish. One means coffee, the other means snot. oh, those lost in translation moments are always hilarious.) Oh, words, the pieces of language that we put together (along with grammar) to communicate and make sense of the world, you fascinate me.

So what about you writers and readers?  What are some of your favorite words? For those of you who have traveled overseas, or who speak another language, are there words that you love in those languages? Have you had lost in translation moments?

image source:  comic by Drew & Natalie Dee. Check out their website here:


9 thoughts on “The Difference Between the Lighting and the Lightning Bug

  1. Favorite words…
    In Spanish: brinca-brinca (the Mexican Spanish word for a moon bounce — “jump-jump”)
    In Russian: vyetnamki (“flip-flops”)

    Least favorite thing in Russian — all the verbs of motion. There are different verbs for each type of motion: going toward, going up to, going around, going through, etc. etc. I’d much rather have the basic verb conjugations of Spanish and deal with prepositions!

  2. Hey Jess, thanks for commenting and so quickly after I posted! 🙂

    I like your favorite words. Brincar is a very fun Spanish word. I think it captures “jump” better than jump does in English. Also, I thought your least favorite thing about Russian was all the cases, which you tried to explain to me but I couldn’t quite get. 😉

    • Yes, the cases are terrible too. Hmm…which is worse — cases or verbs of motion? I’ll say it’s a tie for now, till I study the verbs of motion a little more!

  3. Jess shared your post on my FB so I came over. She was right – I loved this post! 🙂

    Although it is often said (over here) that “Russian is great and powerful” and “Ukrainian is a language of many word options” (loose translation, but there’s an entire poem about Ukrainian language…)… Yet, I still stick to English whenever I write exactly for the reason you mention about: English has an enormous vocabulary. There’s nothing better sometimes than type a word in thesaurus and look at all the options. But that’s not what I love the most about English – I love the fact that a noun can be made into a verb, and vice versa. I love that I can invent words when I simply cannot find one that does not fit the occasion and people will understand what I am talking about. That is…. possible in Ukrainian / Russian (my native languages), but sooooo much harder because you’ve got to take into account all the rules. (Jess often laughs at me because whenever she asks me about some grammar / spelling rule, most of the time I have NO clue as to those… I’m just glad I didn’t have to learn Russian later in life, I simply started talking it 😀 )

    Anyway… all this random rambling to say: great post! (And I’ll be coming back to your blog)

    • Zee, thanks for reading! You make a good point about the ability to make English nouns into verbs, although I think this is a fact that really annoys strict grammartarians. (Is that even a word?) But that is a characteristic of English, and makes it different from say French, which France is determined to keep as pure as possible. It is interesting how quickly new words come into our vocabulary, especially in the age of the internet. Words like “to google,” or “friending.” I also like the way you can make new words, sometimes by smashing two together, like fantabulous or chillaxing. It’s funny that you say you are glad you are a native speaker of Russian. I always say that about English, as it can be so illogical at times with its grammar rules and especially with spelling. Thanks again for commenting, hope to see you here again! 🙂

  4. What an interesting blog this is!

    Brincar in Portuguese means “to play,” as in child’s play. The noun is brincadeira. I think it lost it’s “jump” synonym many generations ago. (Jump is pular.) But the jump connection is interesting when it comes to playing. In Guyana a party is called a “jump up.” I always liked that term.

    Brazilian Portuguese has wonderful, swaying sounds. It’s easy to see how samba could come from it. (Or did African samba modify Portuguese?) Spanish and Italian are very staccato; Brazilian Portuguese is sand-blasted. All the hard consonants became softer around the time of Cervantes and Camões, when Spanish and Portuguese began diverging from each other. So s’s sound like z’s, initial t’s sound like ch, ch’s sound like sh, g’s sound like zh, etc. I think that without the audio cues of hard consonants, Portuguese evolved into reliance more on vowel nuances and, particularly, cadence and rhythm.

    So, for example, in my mind it’s hard to say minha (MEENya; mine) without immediately feeling the initial pulse of a bouncing rhythm. The tongue lingers just so slightly on the palette, sort of like double consonants compel the speaker to pause in Italian. I find it all so musical. To hear a Brazilian mother refer softly to a child as what we would call cute, bonitinho, is heart-stopping.

    Unlike your dad, I always liked “moist.” Jungles and warm humid air have appealed to me since my childhood in Costa Rica. I also enjoy the sensual connotation, of course. I have long thought that a group of women should form a band called The Moist Towelettes. They used to have such items on airliners.

    English has lots of synonyms because in the wake of several waves of invasions, most prominently the Danes, then, in 1066, the Normans, the language simply incorporated the vocabulary of the newcomers. Yet the use of one or another otherwise synonymous term had status connotations. Pig is outside, dirty, still alive. Pork is prepared, indoors, ready to eat. There are many farm/manor house–or class–terms in English that in other languages are a single word. Stone has a more august feel to it than rock.

    Thanks for letting me play!

  5. Hey Chris, nice to see you here. That is very interesting about the connection between jump and play and party, and what a beautiful description of Brazilian Portuguese. Your comment about a mother calling her daughter bonitinho, reminds me of one of my favorite Spanish words, one I forgot to mentioned above: “mija.”

    Not sure about your band name idea, especially since I don’t think others will agree with your love of the word. LOL. Personally I do not have a problem with it; it makes me think of hot brownies or chocolate cake. Also, I am sure Dad is going to be happy to know that you now know a word that makes him shudder. (Though maybe you already knew this. Did we talk about “moist” and “lotion” last time I was over?)

    Bill Bryson has a book called The Mother Tongue, which is a history of the English language. It is really interesting, and he talks about all the different invasions that have changed English over time. And he discusses the difference in pig/pork, cow/beef as well, which first arose after the Normans arrived, and as you pointed out was related to class and differences between manor/farmhouse and lords (french) and serfs (anglo-saxons.) Such fascinating stuff. I really wish I had taken that History of the English Language class at Bucknell instead of Psych. Statistics my sophomore year…

  6. Roberto’s girlfriend gave me an interesting book (I’ll have to look for it) that has a section devoted to the idea of how language evolves situationally, and it focuses on some of the tongues of southern Mexico. Europeans typically locate people and things in conversation from the viewpoint of the speaker, as in, “the second door on the right.” The speaker is implicitly visualizing where the door is from her or his mentally projected position, a sort of relative “north,” and “the right” is the speaker’s right.

    Some cultures, e.g., Australian aborigines, use the literal points on the compass, such that, “the second door headed west.” Sounds incredible, but according to this book, these folks have nearly impeccable sense of absolute direction.

    And apparently there are cultures in southern Mexico that use geography for location, and I was wondering if you encountered it. So, whereas I would say the hot water faucet is on the left, and the native Australian might say it is south of the cold water faucet, in certain Mexican villages situated in very mountainous areas, the hot water tap can be described as downhill.

    • Hey Chris,

      I hope you can find that book; I am definitely interested in reading it. I do not recall any examples of directions like the ones above, but then again, I didn’t learn enough Tzotzil to understand or talk about directions. I also don’t remember any strange uses of Spanish, that might have been translated from Tzotzil. The only thing in terms of place or location that comes to mind is the fact that the word for village was “jlumaltike” which roughly translates as our lands/earth. J being the indication of “my/our,” lumal being earth, and tike, being the part of the word that indicates plural.

      Another thing that I found really interesting was the way that people would always comment or ask, “Ya sabes comer platanos?” People were always asking if I knew how to eat something, or that they were surprised that I had learned to eat like them. I don’t know if this is due to the way they are translating the original from Tzotzil into Spanish or if it is a reflection on their thoughts about food and eating. Here in the US we’d say have you tried something? Do you like it? And I am pretty sure this is what my friends in Zamora, Mexico would say as well. “Has probado platanos?” “Te gustan?”

      Hope you had fun on the boat today. Sorry I missed you, had to get back to College Park for a study session.



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