The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as that between lightning and the lightning bug
We personally experienced Mr. Twain’s quote when the telephone company crossed our phone lines with that of another customer. Upon calling customer service, Catherine explained the problem and noted something different about the employee’s accent.
“Where are you located?” she asked him.
“The Philippines,” he replied.
As he was unable to resolve our problem to her satisfaction she asked to speak to his supervisor. Big mistake, as the supervisor had a thicker accent. To make a long story short, she finally got through to the person on the other end of the line that they needed to check our phone records, or rather the phone records of the number she was calling from—which wasn’t our number, and they would see how to resolve the problem as this was the second time they had switched our phone line with this person.
After much checking and rechecking on what she’d said, the phone company employee gave us a time that they would attempt to fix the problem. He said the technician would come to our apartment and look in our phone boxes. Catherine repeatedly told him neither we, nor the party who currently was in possession of our phone line, lived in an apartment, and there should be no need for the technician to come into our homes. We lived in houses a mile apart and no one had been messing with our phone boxes. The problem was on their end, or rather in a relay box somewhere near where we live. She should have taken the hint right then that we weren’t on the same page, English-wise or culturally.
Then he said we should keep our phone lines open.
Now Catherine didn’t know what that meant to him, but to her it meant staying on the line. “Do you mean you want me to not hang up the phone?” she asked, wondering how that made any sense and how it was going to work for the allotted time to would take to fix the line—which had been over a week the first time this happened.
“No,” he said, “keep it by your side.”
“Keep it by my side?” That made about as much sense as putting Godiva dark chocolates on a hot sidewalk. “Do you mean you want me to carry it around with me?” she asked. As she was calling on a land line, and the problem was with a land line, she could not see how this would help. In fact, it would be a downright inconvenience.
“No,” he replied.
She searched her brain for another definition of keeping the line open. “Then do you want us not make any calls or take any calls on our lines?” she asked.
He said some other unintelligible phrase, obviously as frustrated as she was at his botched attempts. Finally, he blurted out, “Don’t unplug the phone.”
“Why would I do that?” she asked, completely bamboozled at his definition. That, she thought, would be a stupid thing to do, and had absolutely no relationship to the phrase “keep the lines open.” What he tried to express to her, with what appeared to be a very basic understanding of English, was as close to lightning as lightning is to a lightning bug.
Next time we have to deal with the phone company, we’re asking where the customer service employee is located and calling back until we get someone in America. Hopefully, they’ll know the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.