The Difference Between the Almost Right Word and the Right Word Is Really a Large Matter—’Tis the Difference Between the Lightning Bug and the Lightning

Mark Twain? Josh Billings? Henry Wheeler Shaw? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Writing well requires the selection of properly expressive words. There is an enormous difference between selecting ‘lightning bug’ versus ‘lightning’. Apparently, Mark Twain said something similar to this, but I was surprised to discover that Twain credited his friend Josh Billings with crafting the wordplay of this remark. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In the 1880s George Bainton contacted numerous successful authors requesting advice for beginning writers about effective work methods. Mark Twain sent a reply in 1888 that appeared in the resultant compilation titled “The Art of Authorship” in 1890.

Twain used the pronoun “he” while referring to himself as a neophyte author within his description of the writing process. Twain stated that he preferred short sentences: 1

Unconsciously he accustoms himself to writing short sentences as a rule. At times he may indulge himself with a long one, but he will make sure that there are no folds in it, no vaguenesses, no parenthetical interruptions of its view as a whole.

Twain presented a vividly comical contrast while discussing word selection. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 2

Well, also he will notice in the course of time, as his reading goes on, that the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.

Yet, Twain willingly acknowledged that a comparable joke had been made by his friend and fellow humorist Josh Billings (pen name of Henry Wheeler Shaw) a couple decades earlier.

In 1869 several U.S. newspapers published a collection of sayings from Billings which included the following four items. Billings employed dialectical spelling: 3

The greater the man, the less his virteus appear, and the larger hiz faults.

The man who hain’t got an enemy, iz really poor.

Don’t mistake vivacity for wit, thare iz just az mutch difference az thare iz between lightning and a lightning bug.

No man ever yet undertook tew alter his natur by substituting sum invenshun ov his own, but what made a botch job ov it.

Here is Billings’ wordplay quip in standard spelling:

Don’t mistake vivacity for wit, there is just as much difference as there is between lightning and a lightning bug.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

A nearly identical statement appeared in an almanac called “Josh Billings’ Farmer’s Allminax for the Year 1871”. The word “just” was changed to “about”: 4

Don’t mistake vivacity for wit, thare iz about az mutch difference az thare iz between lightning and a lightning bug.

In 1890 Mark Twain’s remark appeared in “The Art of Authorship” as presented previously.

An untitled manuscript written by Mark Twain in 1895 included some memories of Josh Billings. Twain called Billings a good friend and credited him with several sharp lines including a comment contrasting lighting bug and lightning: 5

He too was a great card on the lecture platform in those days; and his quaint and pithy maxims were on everybody’s tongue. He said “Some folks mistake vivacity for wit; whereas the difference between vivacity and wit is the same as the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” And he said, “Don’t take the bull by the horns, take him by the tail, and then you can let go when you want to.” Also he said, “The difficulty ain’t that we know so much, but that we know so much that ain’t so.”

In 1901 Twain delivered a speech in New York at the “Annual Dinner of St. Andrew’s Society”. He included a different version of the saying attributed to Billings: 6

Josh Billings defined the difference between humor and wit as that between the lightning bug and the lightning.

In 1972 the reference “Everyone’s Mark Twain” compiled by Caroline Thomas included Twain’s version of the joke together with a citation: 7

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.
“The Art of Composition”
Life As I Find It, p. 228

In conclusion, the core of this wordplay joke was crafted by Josh Billings by 1869. Mark Twain created a popular variant that appeared in 1890. Twain was aware of Billings’ quip and acknowledged him.

Image Notes: Cropped detail showing a forest with fireflies (or yellow dots) from an image by Artie_Navarre at Pixabay. Image has been resized.

(Great thanks to Just a Flâneur and Pam Crouch whose comments and inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to previous researchers Ralph Keyes and Barbara Schmidt.)

Notes:

  1. 1890, The Art of Authorship: Literary Reminiscences, Methods of Work, and Advice to Young Beginners, Compiled and edited by George Bainton, Section: Mark Twain, Start Page 85, Quote Page 87, D. Appleton and Company, New York. (Internet Archive at archive.org) link
  2. 1890, The Art of Authorship: Literary Reminiscences, Methods of Work, and Advice to Young Beginners, Compiled and edited by George Bainton, Section: Mark Twain, Start Page 85, Quote Page 87 and 88, D. Appleton and Company, New York. (Internet Archive at archive.org) link
  3. 1869 October 12, Daily Evening Herald, The Josh Billings Papers, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Stockton, California. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1871, Josh Billings’ Farmer’s Allminax for the Year 1871, Month: January 1871, Section: Hash On Toast, Quote Unnumbered Page, G. W. Carleton, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 2010, Who is Mark Twain? by Mark Twain, Editor’s title of untitled manuscript: Frank Fuller and My First New York Lecture, Editor’s date of manuscript: May-July 1895, Start Page 5, Quote Page 24, HarperStudio: Imprint of HarperCollins, New York. (Verified with scans of paperback edition; hardcover was published in 2009)
  6. 1976, Mark Twain Speaking, Edited by Paul Fatout, Speech: Scotch Humor: One hundred forty-fifth Annual Dinner of St. Andrew’s Society, Location: Delmonico’s, New York, Date: November 30, 1901, Start Page 423, Quote Page 424, Published by University of Iowa Press, Iowa City. (Verified wit hardcopy)
  7. 1972, Everyone’s Mark Twain, Compiled by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Topic: Words, Quote Page 669, A. S. Barnes and Company, South Brunswick and New York. (Verified with hardcopy)