45

So there was just a thunderstorm, and my sister came with a question I couldn't answer:

Why is it "thunder and lightning", because the lightning comes before the thunder? Shouldn't it be "lightning and thunder"?

And now I wonder, where did the phrase "thunder and lightning" come from, and why isn't it "lightning and thunder"?

  • 25
    Because for whatever reason the phrase has been handed down in English that way and is now frozen. Note that there is nothing preventing you from saying "lightning and thunder," and such a fresh approach may in fact be beneficial. – Robusto Sep 14 '15 at 14:03
  • 11
    Technically don't lightning and thunder occur simultaneously? Isn't it just that we see the lightning first because it gets to us quicker than the sound? – WS2 Sep 14 '15 at 14:57
  • 6
    Something I haven't seen mentioned, and I'm not sure if is a "real" reason, but if you think about it, you normally hear the thunder first. If you are in a house, or a forest, or anything other than a wide open field, you're going to hear the thunder of a distant storm before you start looking around for lighting. At night you may notice lightning first, but only if you're close to a window. – JPhi1618 Sep 14 '15 at 15:44
  • 6
    I was going to post my answer, which was just "In my opinion, Thunder and Lightning flows through the mouth and sounds better than Lightning and Thunder" - but its far too opinionated of an answer, especially compared to what's already here. – DoubleDouble Sep 14 '15 at 21:29
  • 10
45

In the Latin bible, it is written in Exodus 19:16-25:

iam advenerat tertius dies et mane inclaruerat et ecce coeperunt audiri tonitrua ac micare fulgura et nubes densissima operire montem clangorque bucinae vehementius perstrepebat timuit populus qui erat in castris.

A widespread translation in the English Bible is:

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled

The literal translation of "audiri tonitrua ac micare fulgura" is "hear thunder and see lightning" in this precise (chronologically erroneous) order. We may imagine that today expression thunder and lightning is related to this bible sentence.

EDIT: The whole New Testament was initially written in Greek, whilst the vast majority of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew. Exodus being a part of the Old Testament, the origin of the text is probably Hebrew. The Hebraic Bible was translated to Greek in the 3rd century BC. The first translation from Greek to Latin was the Vulgate by St. Jerome at end of the 4th century AD.

To complete the answer, let's add @Mike's pertinent finding:

It was "thunders and lightnings" in the original Hebrew, too. See: Hebrew-English Exodus translation. "kolot u'vrakim". "Kolot" is thunder (feminine plural) and "vrakim" is lightning (masculine plural).

  • 12
    No doubt the Bible is the 'source' of the expression. I'd note that arguments that it 'sounds better when spoken in this order' really reflect our familiarity with this arrangement of the words rather than some inherent rhyming order. I also note the observation that 'thunder (then) lightning' is chronologically erroneous. I'd suggest that you consider the sequence experientially, and in the context of a storm rather than a single event. Thunder is the 'knock on the door' that draws our attention to the approaching lightning storm, so that we then look up from our tasks or out our windows. – John Mack Sep 14 '15 at 15:25
  • 3
    Shakespeare is consistent with the Bible here: "When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?" (the opening lines of "Macbeth"). To be pedantic, the Latin and Hebrew bibles both say "thunders" and "lightnings", plural. – alephzero Sep 14 '15 at 16:08
  • 6
    A common translation what does that mean? Is this from the King James, for instance? When did this first appear (in English?) Is there any evidence at all that this was perhaps quoted widely or?? – Fattie Sep 14 '15 at 17:14
  • 4
    @Josh61 It was "thunders and lightnings" in the original Hebrew, too. See: mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0219.htm#16 "kolot u'vrakim". "Kolot" is thunder (feminine plural) and "vrakim" is lightning (masculine plural). – Mike Supports Monica Sep 14 '15 at 18:58
  • 5
    Did people never talk about thunder and lightning in English before the translation of the Bible? That seems like a gigantically improbable assumption. – herisson Sep 14 '15 at 21:24
30

To the preceding answers I would add that between thunder and lightning, the thunder is the more substantial.

  • Lightning is line-of-sight, decreases substantially with reflection, and can be completely obscured by clouds, forest canopy, your roof, etc. Thunder carries long distances, around corners, and penetrates most obstacles.
  • Lightning is perceived visibly whereas thunder is both heard and felt. Thunder can rattle your house. It is the more visceral of the two.
  • Lightning is instantaneous whereas thunder has stamina. It can roll on, reverberate, echo, and outlast the visible lightning by many seconds.

These generalizations hold true unless of course the lightning strikes you or close to you. However, that occurrence is extremely rare in comparison. It's very common to feel vibrations of thunder, much less so to feel lightning. Thankfully.

Although a previous answer quotes from the Bible as a possible source of this word pattern, the differential in how these are experienced may account for the ordering of the phrase in the bible and elsewhere rather than it being happenstance.

Update 15 Sep 2015
Thanks to a downvote on this answer, other responses, and subsequent discussion in the comments, I was inspired to so a little research on this and learned a lot. The most helpful document I found was The Chicken or the Egg? A Probabilistic Analysis of English Binomials by Benor and Levy which was most enlightening:

Based on an analysis of 692 binomial tokens from on-line corpora, we show that a number of semantic, metrical, and frequency constraints contribute significantly to ordering preferences, overshadowing the phonological factors that have traditionally been considered important.

Cutting to the summary of the study, the authors write:

The main trend we found in our data was the prominence of semantic over metrical constraints, and metrical over frequency constraints. We expect that a similar relationship might be found among these different levels of grammar in phenomena other than binomial formation where semantic, phonological, and frequency factors are also relevant.

The semantic constraints mentioned are precedence hierarchies based on meanings of the terms in the binomial. Constraints based on how the words are formed in the mouth and "roll off the tongue," or how they sound, are valid as well but in no way are mutually exclusive to semantic precedence.

Amusingly, the explanation for the downvote on this answer (and my motivation to take time out for the Internet searching) was the assertion that my response above is merely a theory and an assertion that the ordering was based on "how the words scan" is a fact. The scholarly research I discovered seems to indicate that there are many competing theories of binomial construction which successfully predict binomial formation at high rates, and which appear to contribute to a complex hierarchical web of interacting causes. Although "scanning" was not mentioned by that name, multiple theories are based on the vocalization and sound of the words. Then too, several are based on factors such as those mentioned in this answer (how and how often terms A and B are experienced) and also successfully predict fixed binomials with high rates of success.

According to the research I found, all of the competing theories are just that - theories - and none considered definitive, much less fact. When the most authoritative research available is theories, presumably any "best" answer would be a theory. When the research indicates an interdependent hierarchical web of causality, presumably any "best" answer would be based on one or more of them. What seems to have emerged is several answers converging on "rightness" and which in aggregate appear to provide a mosaic of understanding, somewhat resembling the hierarchical causality web the authors in the cited paper describe.

Though I barely had time for a cursory scan, I got the impression that any answer to this question claiming to be fact or claiming that any one of the competing causality theories is dominant to the exclusion of all others would necessarily be deficient.

Much thanks to the downvoter for the motivation to do the searching and Mari-Lou A for the pointer to irreversible binomials which made the search productive. I see some other answers were downvoted for being equally "wrong." Happy to be in such good company.

  • 5
    And because of your first bullet point, if a thunderstorm is approaching, you are likely to start hearing thunder before you start noticing lightning flashes. – zwol Sep 14 '15 at 16:53
  • 1
    Being one of the 2 others responders, I didn't downvote, because I usually don't downvote answers and because your answer is sensible. However, in French, thunder before lightning is not significantly more frequent than thunder after lightning. – Graffito Sep 14 '15 at 21:37
  • 1
    I would assume its because the answer is largely speculation. But that's sort of to be expected when trying to figure out why a pair was frozen in the order it was - as discussed by the many links to papers and such on the questions that @Mari-LouA linked as related. – DoubleDouble Sep 14 '15 at 21:45
  • 1
    Thanks for the explanation of the downvote. I'm fascinated by your description of scanning but none of the links posted refer to an explanation of it. Searched for "phoneme scanning" "language scanning" etc. but any authoritative pages are masked by millions of hits to scanning paper forms or using code to scan a corpus of text. Not sure what search terms I should be using to find the info and would love a link or two. – T.Rob Sep 15 '15 at 2:01
  • 2
    +1 for the very interesting link, and for the honest acknowledgement that no single theory is obviously correct. – herisson Sep 16 '15 at 2:13
16

At some stage in their scientific analysis of the phenomena of lightning and thunder, people may have believed that thunder came first and that lighting emerged out of it. From a discussion of thunder and lightning as meteors "of mixt kinde" in John Gwillim, A Display of Heraldrie (1611):

Thunder is an inflamed Exhalation, which by his powerfull force breaketh thorow the Clouds violentlie, with great noise and terrour. The forcible power thereof is rather apprehended by the eare, then subiected to the sight : neuerthelesse, the ancient times haue deuised a certaine imaginarie forme wherby they would expresse the forcible power thereof, as also of the lightning.

Lightning is a vehement eruption of an inflamed exhalation, proceeding from Thunder ; which though it is in time after Thunder, yet it is first represented to our senses, by reason that our sight is farre more subtill and apprehensiue then is our hearing. And in regard that Thunder and Lightning doe both proceed from one selfe-cause, they haue in such their imaginarie fiction conioined them both vnder one forme, after this manner.

In Hall's view, thunder comes first, as being the name of the "inflamed Exhalation" that violently forces apart the clouds, whereas lightning is the vehement eruption of this exhalation, later in time but earlier in human perception due to the superior subtlety of our sight over our hearing.

The OED (1971 edition) offers this definition as 1(b) for thunder:

b. Regarded as the destructive agent producing the effects usually attributed to the lightning; (with a and pl.) a thunderstroke or 'thunderbolt'. Now only poet. or rhet. ((exc. fig.).

That early English speakers did not think of thunder as being merely the sound that accompanies lightning may also be seen from the word thunderbolt, which the OED dates to 1440 and assigns the following first definition:

1. A supposed bolt or dart formerly (and still vulgarly) believed to be the destructive agent in a lightning-flash when it 'strikes' anything; a flash of lightning conceived as an intensely hot solid body moving rapidly through the air and impinging upon something; in mythology, an attribute of Jove, Thor, or other deity.

and again from the word thunderstroke, which the OED dates to 1587 and defines this way:

A stroke of 'thunder' (cf. THUNDER sb. 1 b); the impact of a lightning-flash.

For a lengthy (and quite confusing) discussion of various views of the ancients about thunder, lightning, and fulgurations, see the 1614 Thomas Lodge translation of The Workes Both Morall and Natural of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, chapters 11 through 35 of the second book of Seneca's Of Naturall Questions.

In any event, I suspect that the precise wording "thunder and lightning" became a commonplace pairing in English (the phrase appears, in that order, in plays by Nashe, Marlowe, and Jonson, for example, and in stage directions in two of Shakespare's plays, Julius Caesar and Henry the Sixth, Part II) at a time when the natural phenomena of thunder and of lightning were understood quite differently from the way they are today, with thunder having (by some accounts, at least) the greater and earlier role in the combination.

10

The origin

The plausible origin of ‘thunder and lightning’ has been dealt with in Graffitto's answer, but I want to counterbalance the impression that the binomial thunder and lightning is Biblical. The expression may have made its first appearance in the Exodus, but that is not sufficient evidence to explain why the English use that fixed combination.

It is generally accepted that the first English Bible printed in England was written by WilliamTyndale in 1526. It was also the first time the Bible became available to the secular population, thus for the purpose of this question, any translation of the Holy Bible prior to that date should not be taken into consideration. After Tyndale’s death in 1536, the Bible was reviewed several times until its most acclaimed version, the King James Bible, was finalized and printed in 1612. The task of translation was performed by over 40 Church of England scholars; the New Testament was translated from Greek while the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew and Aramaic. The Book of Exodus is found in the Old Testament.

The expression thunder and lightning is not cited verbatim in the King James Bible. The precise citations in Exodus 19:16 and 20:18 are the following

And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled.

And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off. And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die.

Which means the people heard the thundering and then saw the lightning. The one followed the other. The expressions, thunders and lightnings and thunderings, and lightnings, were later reduced to the more familiar thunder and lightning which we hear and use today. But why do English speakers prefer this fixed order? When today we know that lightning precedes thunder.

Sequence and Binomials

Joe Blow's answer included the binomial Donner and Blitzen, (now deleted) and argued the English thunder and lightning scanned better. However, a rebuttal might claim the Germans copied the order from the Holy Bible.

Is the same therefore true for all European languages? Not really. If we look at Google Ngram we see that the German, Donner und Blitz, and Blitz und Donner are both common, but the latter (lightning and thunder) appears to be increasingly dominant, I might rationalize that this is due to semantic constraints, i.e. lightning precedes thunder, but I digress. In Spanish, trueno y relámpago and rayos y truenos are both used; and in Italian the swapped binomial: lampi e tuoni (lightning and thunder) is often heard too. In fact, Google Italian Books lists 4,240 instances. Janus Bahs Jacquet, in the comments, mentions that the Swedish, blixt och dunder is a fixed expression, and the Danish, lyn og torden is completely fixed in the opposite order of the English phrase. Which begs the question, why didn't all these European languages follow suit? A possible explanation is to be found in the following sources.

Binomials, the pairing of words, has been mentioned several times on EL&U:

  1. "pros and cons", "black and white", "ups and downs". Always in a fixed sequence, is there a word or phrase for these?

Binomials have two main characteristics. The first, […] is that the order is usually perceived as fixed. The second is that the two terms are normally the same part of speech, though not always Nouns. […] Binomials occur in many languages and are often the subject of academic research.
Araucaria

  1. Why do we say kith & kin and not kin & kith?

Cooper and Ross give the following hierarchy for words that differ only in their final consonant (in those pairings where there is no ordering based on semantics for various reasons). Words that end with the types of consonants further to the right in the list below are likely to be in the final position.

  • Stops - Aspirants - Nasals - Liquids - Glides

Basically the more obstruent-like the final consonant the more likely that word is to be first in the pairing.
Araucaria

  1. crisscross, dillydally, riffraff, etc

Cooper and Ross* note that there are a number of reasons, some phonological and some semantic, that explain why one does not find reverse freezes like *raffriff, *pocus-hocus, *crosscriss, *dallydilly

John Lawler

  • Which word comes first in an irreversible (binomial) can be dictated by what is considered the most powerful or important by its native speakers: e.g. Adam and Eve; bride and groom; law and order; food and drink.

  • The number of syllables. Often the first word will be singular and have fewer syllables, e.g; bow and arrow; horse and carriage; rich and famous; cease and desist; milk and honey; smoke and mirrors; ladies and gentlemen.

  • Alliteration, e.g; flip-flop; right or wrong; spic and span; sugar and spice.

  • Semantic contraints, words which follow a natural logical order, e.g; sooner or later; now or never; start to finish; life and death.

  • Phonology. Among the too many to mention, the word that contains the voiced consonant will precede the word containing the voiceless consonant.

The term lightning is represented in American IPA as [ˈlʌɪʔ.nɪŋ]. The stress is on the first syllable as shown by the apostrophe. The symbol ʔ states that the letter t is a glottal stop, (the sound in the middle of the word uh-oh) when it comes after a vowel and it is followed by an n sound. Listen to the British pronunciation of lightning on Macmillan Dictionary, which is virtually identical to the American English pronunciation, for confirmation.

Whereas the letter d in thunder is plosive, and voiced. Linguists call it a voiced alveolar stop. The IPA for thunder is /ˈθʌn.dɚ/, note the same stress on the first syllable as in [ˈlʌɪʔ.nɪŋ] and that both words have two syllables, which invalidates Joe Blow's assertion that lightning is the longer word (the "shorter" scan word going first), it is nothing of the sort.

It is my supposition that thunder comes first in the binomial because of phonological constraints, i.e. the voiced d whereas in and, the d is barely perceptible and the word is often pronounced as n. The end result is something like: thunder'n'lightnin', which is very similar to the irreversible binomial and alliterative rock'n'roll, where the letter k has a ‘harder’ sound than the letter ‘l’.


Source: p74 (4.1.4) p85-87; The (Ir)reversibility of English Binomials: Corpus, constraints, developments By Sandra Mollin

  • I think the more common expression is "tuoni e fulmini" which is a sort of set phrase despite other combinations are used. books.google.com/ngrams/… – user66974 Sep 15 '15 at 9:06
  • 1
    Additionally, in Swedish, blixt och dunder has a fixed order, whereas the synonymous blixt och åska/åska och blixtar exists in both orders. In Danish (and also, I believe, Norwegian), lyn og torden is completely fixed in the opposite order of the English phrase. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 15 '15 at 10:11
  • the cooper-ross reason in (2) is simply about "scan". (they are attempting to pick apart the internals of scan, but they're not lyricists or mystics so they avoid mentioning flim-flam topics like "scan"....) – Fattie Sep 15 '15 at 18:04
6

Most academic research on binomials which have frozen would seem to focus around the scan of the phrase.

In short it "sounds better" (i.e., is easier to say, more punchy, et cetera) one way than the other.

(The academic thought on the matter seems to discuss the detailed intricacies of why a pair scans better one way or another: so, where any lyricist might say of a pair "of course it scans better this way than the other way..." the academic literature seems to investigate the "why" of that in detail.)

Here's a very worthwhile survey article

A basic in thought about the scan of binomials, if we care about previous thinking on the matter, would seem to be that the "shorter" scanning word goes first...

enter image description here

In asking about the binomial "frozen" nature of thunder and lightning, it's difficult to see why one wouldn't first, instantly, look at that aspect: since thunder and lightning is a perfect example of it with the "shorter" scan word going first.


Note that this answer previously included some irrelevant survey material, such as a list of musical and poetic uses of the binomial in question. Useless and confusing so redacted.

  • 3
    @EricLippert. This does not mean you can add -en to any word you like, in English or in German. The plural of Blitz is Blitze. – fdb Sep 14 '15 at 15:53
  • 4
    @fdb: Hey, I can add --en to any worden that I choosen to! :) – Eric Lippert Sep 14 '15 at 16:16
  • 1
    Blitzen is a German word and its meaning is closely related to lightning, as well as twinkling and flash. dict.tu-chemnitz.de/deutsch-englisch/Blitzen.html – Leatherwing Sep 14 '15 at 19:20
  • 1
    @Leatherwing. "Blitzen" is the infinitive of the verb "to flash". It does not mean "lightning"; "lightning" is "Blitz". (Strange the way some people on here will up-vote anything even if they have no idea of the topic.) – fdb Sep 14 '15 at 22:45
  • 3
    Just imagine how awful Bohemian Rhapsody would be the other way around. :) – biziclop Sep 15 '15 at 16:03
2

No doubt the older, Biblical sources are more influential, but Otis Redding might also have used the words in this order in his song, Knock On Wood because 'lightning' rhymes with 'frightening'.

It's like thunder lightning

The way you love me is frightening

He was perhaps being unconsciously led by the typical order of "thunder, lightning", but also reinforcing that order in listeners minds.

  • 2
    Same rhyme also in Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody! – AllInOne Sep 15 '15 at 15:11
  • 3
    Redding could have written "It's like lightning, thunder/The way you love is no blunder." The emphasis would have been on effective technique instead of terror, but it might still have worked. – Sven Yargs Sep 15 '15 at 16:33
  • @SvenYargs. I think that would've sounded a bit comical, but your point is valid. – James Bradbury Sep 16 '15 at 8:27
  • 1
    This doesn't answer the question as to "why" the order is fixed. There was no need for Redding to reinforce that order in listeners, it was already fixed.The fixed word pair was established well before any 20th century (and probably 19th) singer-songwriters began composing their pieces. – Mari-Lou A Sep 17 '15 at 5:49
-1

I think the simplest answer is the most likely the correct one. It's just easier to say "thunder and lightning" than "lightning and thunder". In English you say "black and white", but in Italian the order is reversed. In both cases the choice is dictated purely by euphony.

  • 2
    Do you have any evidence to back up your assertion? – Matt E. Эллен Sep 18 '15 at 9:53
  • @MattE.Эллен - There is rarely any true "evidence" to back up most etymological assertions. – Hot Licks Sep 18 '15 at 13:07
  • @HotLicks But the assertion that it is some how easier to say "thunder and lightning" than "lightning and thunder" should have evidence. Since moving from /d/ to /θ/ is less effort than from /d/ to /l/, I would think the contrary is true. – Matt E. Эллен Sep 18 '15 at 15:04
  • 1
    I find "thunder and lightning" easier to say. It's not purely the order of adjacent sounds, but rather the way the whole thing rolls off the tongue. (And hardly anyone would pronounce the "d" of "and" in "thunder and lightning" anyway.) – Hot Licks Sep 18 '15 at 17:58
  • So you're saying there is evidence one way or the other? – Matt E. Эллен Sep 21 '15 at 11:34

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.