Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Missing the boat by botching a quote

On January 15th at the SpeakWell Partners blog Barbara Roche ended a post titled A Resolution for Public Speakers from Mark Twain with: 

“After all, as Twain explains: ‘The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightening and a lightening bug.’ ”

Her version of what Twain said is amusing but incorrect. He actually was talking about the huge difference between lightning and a lightning bug (or firefly). I know because I opened a June 13, 2013 blog post titled Finding the right word (or not) with a similar Twain quote:

“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.”

In the Yale Book of Quotations (2006) edited by Fred Shapiro there is a slightly different version of that one (from a letter to George Bainton on October 15, 1888) listed as #38 on page 776:

“The difference between the almost-right word & the right word is really a large matter - it’s the difference between the lightning-bug & the lightning.”

What the heck is a lightening bug? I don’t recall ever seeing an insect that could lighten either weight or color. Would it get under what was on the scale and flaps its little wings? Would it just carry around a little helium-filled balloon? 

When you use a quotation in a speech, you are borrowing thunder from someone else. You have an obligation to your audience (and the author of the quote) to get those words right. Otherwise you’re just creating a fairy tale. Run a spell check, and then manually proofread.

Sometimes a quote even goes from OK to fouled up. On a November 24, 2014 post in her Communication Rebel blog titled How to write a speech for the tweets Michelle Mazur used almost the same misquote as Barbara Roche did, even though she’d previously used it correctly in an April 17, 2013 post on 12 Most Brilliant Quotes About communication From Inspired Minds.    

Images of lightning and a firefly both came from Wikimedia Commons.

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