Once, when I was learning Spanish from a book, I came across the following translation: hace lampara – “it is lightning.” I made a note to myself: Spanish has three existential predicates, to wit a) ser “to be” (essential), b) estar “to be” (transient), c) hacer lampara “to be (lightning).”
But, oh, to be lightning! And yet such a word for such a thing. This word, lightning, is a long word, a word that takes rather longer to say than lightning takes to strike. We could have named it zap! This word, too, has such an intricate arrangement of shapes – that dance of the i‘s, g‘s, n‘s and h and l and t – but none of them are jagged. And it’s such a, well, light word – shortened from lightening, as you may have guessed, and starting off all on the tip of the tongue, with that unavoidable effect of light, for something that might better have been named blam! Oh, the echo of frightening is there, certainly, and one might feel that with it Thor is smite-ening someone for their temerity (say, in going jogging in the thrashing rain). But would not a more perfect word for this thing have been shock?
German has it better: Blitz. And we see what combining power that has: Blitzkrieg. The American equivalent was not lightning war but shock and awe. See? Latin called it fulmen – brought to English as fulminate, which sounds more like smouldering. In French, one may call it éclair – oh, dear, just a little puffy dessert – or foudre, which bears a strong resemblance to an impolite verb suggestive of what lightning will do to you if you don’t get out of the way. The Hebrew word for it – you will like this – is barak. (Hebrew for thunder is not obama, but doesn’t that sound like thunder?) The Mandarin is diàn, which is also used to mean “electric” and the character for which looks a bit like a kite – but the Chinese characterized lightning as coming up from the earth two millennia before Ben Franklin did.
Still, because of its object, this word has quite a presence in our language, showing up in well-known phrases such as white lightning, greased lightning, lightning quick, lightning chess, lightning rod, and Tampa Bay Lightning. Of course, flash, strike, and bolt are often seen next to it, all nice, short, shocking words. And yet lightning can cross a kilometre in about 1/300,000 of a second (and thunder can cross one in about 3 seconds), while Bolt still needs more than 9 seconds to go 100 metres.