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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.

Inside or out: the wondrous medusas of Trafaria Praia

Many years ago, while at sea (literally though perhaps also metaphorically) as an oceanography graduate student, I had a chance to visit the hold of the ship where two portholes provided an underwater view for the scientists on the cruise measuring bioluminescence.

This is a beroid, a type of ctenophore, about 5cm long, that has eight rows of combs with cells that produce light. Ctenophores are voracious predators.

Bioluminescence, the production of light by living organisms, is a fascinating biological process in which a pigment, luciferin (bringer of light), interacts with an enzyme, luciferase, and oxygen to release light.

Sea creatures that emit light often do so when they’re disturbed, like when a wave breaks or a ship passes. Marine bioluminescence was an active area of research during the cold war because each side wanted to detect the other side’s submarines, and for their own to navigate undetected.

As I stood in the small room at the bow of the ship, I watched constellations stream by, pinpoints and contrails of light. It was mind-boggling.

Inside or out?

I haven’t been fortunate enough to see the work of Joana Vasconcelos in person, but the images of Trafaria Praia in the 2013 Venice Bienale swept me into an ocean that is both familiar and alien, both deeper than I can remember and more intimate than I could possibly imagine.

Interior photo of Trafaria Praia, Venice Bienale, August 2013. Photo by Carme Miquel.

Combining the traditional crafts of crochet and embroidery with ultra-modern LED lights, she populated the interior of a classic ferry boat of Lisbon, a cacilheiro, with, well, the exterior: an oceanscape of sea creatures. Any concept of scale is confused as microscopic organisms expand to larger than human dimensions.

So many contrasts…

The soft woolen texture of the crocheted and sewn textiles versus the cold hard LEDs. The inside of the ship and the water surrounding it. The womb-like dark studded with light. A symphony of shades of blue. And all the while, like a heartbeat, the very ground heaves gently with the motion of the waves.

Trafaria Praia Photo by Carme Miquel
Close-up in Trafaria Praia showing LEDS embedded in large crocheted rosettes. Photo by Carme Miquel.

A myriad of fantastical creatures, with counterparts captive in nets and under microscopes and swimming throughout the seven seas, hang around the viewers inviting them to consider their role in the ship, in the ocean- and to question, again: inside or out?

Of time and origins 

All the elements of Trafaria Praia conspire to make us see, and think. The cork lining that softens and rounds the sharp edges of a utilitarian metal structure. The use of crochet and embroidery- predominantly female endeavors, to populate a boat- historically not welcoming to women. The futuristically small LEDs. And, always, the ocean waters right outside, their sound muted, their inhabitants often invisible to the naked eye.

Trafaria Praia medusa, Photo Carme Miquel.
A fantastical medusa in Trafaria Praia. Photo by Carme Miquel.

Jellyfish are over 90% water, but is that so different from us, apparently so much more solid, at 60%? Our very blood is salty, we come from the sea. The moon pulls the tides, and if we get very quiet, it speaks to us, too.

Trafaria Praia reminds us of our marine origins and of our kinship with saltwater and brine. It speaks to traditional roles and how we imagine ourselves, to our concepts of beauty versus utility. It suggests that not thinking about where we come from can imperil where we want to go. Most importantly, it challenges us to think.