• This is a blog post about language. If me chuntering on about language bores you, please just watch the cool video above and go about your day.
It was a light and stormy morning, as Bulwer Lytton might have said. Today as I was trundling into work I was repeatedly soaked by one of those summer storms that comes in, drops several thousand tons of water on cyclists in the space of 30 seconds, and then buggers off again just as they’ve got their waterproof jackets on. Also, there was lightning.
And lo and behold, Twitter responded to it thus:
This is fascinating to me. I don’t know how many tweets and tweeters it takes to get something trending in London, but it must be at least hundreds, if not thousands. And when I searched for “lightning”, it said:
The obvious thing to say here is: for God’s sake, people, learn to spell. (My editor has been in paroxysms of fury for some time about it. Although not as furious as he gets when one of our writers submits copy with “thunder and lightening” in it.)
But having got that off my chest, I suppose I should say: are we witnessing the start of a linguistic shift?
Funnily enough, looking at Google Ngrams, “lightening” was a relatively rare but not unheard-of alternative spelling for “lightning” in the early 19th century. As spelling became standardised it died away, but – funnily enough – it seems to have begun very slightly to increase again in the last couple of decades. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that in 50 or 100 years’ time “lightening” will be the standard spelling, just as “gaol” steadily became “jail” in British English (the latter became more common in first half of last century).
For what it’s worth, I don’t think it will. Lots of “wrong” usages and spellings become “right” in surprisingly short times: there’s an interesting piece by The Baltimore Sun’s John E McIntyre on “words that slip their leashes”, like “crescendo” and “decimate”, which had technical meanings (crescendo, a gradual increase in loudness or intensity; decimate, to reduce by one tenth) that are lost in the non-technical usage (crescendo as “climax”, decimate as “devastate”). It’s ridiculous protesting that the non-technical sense is “wrong” unless you’re an orchestra musician or a Roman centurion. “Lightening” could, theoretically, do the same thing.
But the groups of people defending the original meanings of “decimate” and “crescendo” are far smaller than the group which will defend “lightning” against “lightening”. I’m happy to say the decimate/crescendo battle is over and I’m slowly coming to terms with “beg the question” as well. But I think my editor, and his successors, will be getting furious about “lightening” for a few more generations yet.
To conclude, I should probably say something about how this is all indicative of a desperate plunge in educational standards, and then blame either Michael Gove or the last Labour government, depending on what mood I’m in. But to be honest I seriously doubt that any period in history would have been any different, if we’d been able to go on Twitter and see how everyone spelled stuff. So I won’t.