Monthly Archives: July 2014

The naming of lightning

The sky darkens and, with it, my mood. The heat is oppressive, I pull my hair away from my neck into a ponytail. The wind picks up, tossing treetops as if they were weightless. In the distance, a low rumbling spreads and grows. I look up from my computer screen. Thunder? Or just traffic? It dies down. Then a flash of light briefly floods the sky followed closely by a sharp crack. The rain starts, but I notice it mostly by the swooshing sound of tires on wet pavement.

Struck by a thunderbolt

A few years back, on a brief layover in the Milan airport, the airline announced that one of the engines of our plane had been hit by lightning. I was fascinated that the word for lightning was fulmine. It sounded so sudden, final.

I was thinking in Spanish where the Latin fulmen for lightning or thunderbolt, is seen in the adjective fulminante, an event that is sudden, often explosive.

Digging deeper, I find that the verb fulminar means to throw or be struck by lightning bolts.

Something a god might like to do, or a superhero. Not surprisingly, the gods of mythology across the world have been tied to lightning, but that discussion is for another day.

French also has the verb fulminer and English fulminate. 

Does it come like a ray, or is it a spark of illumination?

Italian also uses the word lampo for lightning, which like relámpago (Spanish), llamp in Catalan and the Portuguese relâmpago comes from the Latin lampare, to illuminate, originally from the Greek lampein, for light.

Another word for lightning in Spanish and Portuguese is rayo or raio, which comes from the Latin radius for spoke or ray of light (or a wheel).

Or is it a flash?

Portuguese has yet a third word, corisco, which finds its origins in the Latin coruscus for flashing.

And French? What did they say when that bolt hit the Eiffel tower?

Photo of a lightning strike on 3 June 1902 by M. G. Loppé. NOAA/ Historic NWS Collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

It was hit by an éclair or a foudre. While eclair rather straightforwardly refers to brightening (the Latin clarus),  it appears foudre evolved from the Latin fulgere, to flash.

(Though probably they said: Mon Dieu!)

Both fulminare and fulgere, that share the form ful, lead to words for lightning.

And here we find, as our etymological wanderings will reveal, the burning crux of the word, for ful comes from the Proto-Indo-European (aka pastry-ly abbreviated as PIE) root *bhel, meaning to shine, flash, or burn.

(And if you’re feeling peckish, éclair has been used for lightning since the XII century, while it has referred to the small pastry only since the XIX century.)

What about non-Romance languages?

In English the word lightning is present participle of the verb lightnen in Old English, to make bright. The German word is Blitz, from “Old High German blecchazzen “to flash, lighten” (8c.), from Proto-Germanic *blikkatjan. 

And both blecchazen and lightnen come from *bhel.

The naming of lightning comes from multiple origins

So we find that the flash of light resulting from the discharge between electrically charged parts of clouds or between clouds and the earth’s surface receives names from a verb based on the Middle English word for light and from at least five words in Latin. The two words with the root ful (fulminare and fulgare), may originate from the Proto-Indo-European bhel, which also led to the German blitz. 

I’m tempted to attempt a Venn diagram of the origins for words for lightning, noting which are used most often in each language or if they are used under different circumstances.

Don’t worry. I won’t.

So just as  the electrical discharge

is created by the friction of water vapor moving and shifting within clouds, the discharge receives its name, and thus it could be argued known, from different words.

Not unlike the water molecules in the cloud that can hail from anywhere, as breathtakingly expressed by Wisława Szymborska.