The Vocabulary of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer"
Mark Twain: The Author, The Artist
To a writer, the right word can either paint an elaborate picture—precise in meaning and phrase—or an unsightly mess; which typically strokes an opposite effect. For those of us who enjoy canvassing our world with particular glimpses of creativity and insight, choosing the right word—or phrase—is a big deal. Or, as our good friend, Mark Twain, might have penned: a melodious dispersion.
Mark Twain has always been one of my favorite writers. His deft use of description invites readers into a story in ways where we feel like first-hand witnesses. I love Twain’s colloquial and street-wise use of language. He writes the way his readers (as well as many of us) speak; and is thereby deeply endearing. When I was younger, (aghast!), Twain’s books were more than mere stories. They were thumbnails of a life I wanted to be real. Tales of wild injuns and gold-digging; rafting an untamed river; and the sheer, unadulterated freedom of living without the parental yoke, were all fantasy and longing. Oh how I wished to be Tom or Huck blazing a trail—or wake—toward an unknown end. These are the emotive qualities of Mark Twain and thus one of the reasons I checked out “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” to read to my boys. I wanted them to hear the sound of words turning into pictures and pictures developing into scenes… Yes. “Tom Sawyer” is a great story filled with great wonder. It’s a book filled with simple life, innocent passion, and an incredible use of descriptive language. The vocabulary of Mark Twain is on glassy display throughout all his work. But it is the vocabulary of “Tom Sawyer” I wish to nudge to the stage. – It will be the focus of this hub—as well as a few more to follow—to illumine the unique vernacular of Twain’s “Tom Sawyer,” beginning with chapter one.
"Tom Sawyer" Vocabulary: Chapter One
Before I read the first page of “Tom Sawyer,” I told my boys how some of the words may be hard [for them] to understand. But that was part of the book’s beauty. Twain not only tells a great story, he expands your grasp of language and vocabulary. And so, without further fanfare, here are my vocabulary picks from chapter one.
- Middling warm: Middling is to be moderate—or middle—in size. Twain’s use of this phrase is classic, outside-the-norm description. A more relevant use of the phrase today might sound like this: “Somewhere between the last rays of morning, the middling warmth of the day succumbed to stifle ness.”—OR—“The difficulty in speaking with my salty uncle is his uncanny ability to wander aloof amidst his middling warm personality.”
- One whit less heavy: A whit is the smallest part or particle imaginable; which fits perfectly with Twain’s use of this phrase. Hyperbole in nature, yet sarcastic in meaning, this phrase is tell-tale Twain. Although not common in today's speak, I can hear myself internally muttering something like this: “Searching for any goodness of news, my scale is at least one whit less heavy after breakfast.”
- Sagacity: To have sagacity is to possess a keen sense of judgment and penetrating insight. This is a great word offering precise meaning, for example: “Today’s economic malaise offers the sagacious economist ample on-field time.”—Or—“My father’s sagacity with spur-of-the-moment words often delivered him from many an embarrassing confrontation.”
- Liquid warble and birdlike: This is one of my favorite animalities in “Tom Sawyer.” A liquid warble is a smooth, flowing, and effortless sound. Warbles are most-often attributed to a consistent, low-in-tone trill of voice full of fluctuation in tone and pitch—pleasant to the ear and very birdlike. “The liquid warble in her voice was like a massage to my soul and calming to our hearts.”
- Natty: Trim, neat and tidy is how natty is defined. Although natty Tom is an oxymoron, the use of the word in “Tom Sawyer” is well-placed and used in a comparative manner. Personally, I like using the word in sentences such as this: “Compared to my wife, my desk and workspace is a tad less natty.”
- Citified air: Another one of those Twain-like phrases perfectly capturing a mannerism or personality, citified air reflects a sophisticated style of living—often in a disparaging manner. Citified is one of those words you can toss a reader to express a quick, little jab of orneriness; for example: “You know, in the short time speaking with you, I sense your citified air as a self-embossed personal badge. You should be proud.” – As I said, this is quite the ornery word!
- In high feather: This is a great idiom! In high feather describes a proud display of ego and personality with the primary motive being self-grandstanding. More than likely originating from the world of birds—who often display unique territorial and mating rituals—the phrase can be implemented whenever a description of absurd flamboyance is necessary; such as: “It was very difficult to suppress laughter [and disdain] whenever the mistress of the hour displayed herself in high feather. We could only witness the going-on with inner pity.”
- Adamantine: Showing a great quality of resistance and rigid authority, adamantine is a word, though rarely used, that delivers true colors of description. A modern use of the word could be as follows: “In a world of seemingly endless tolerance, an adamantine stance on an issue is worthy of respect.”
"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by
the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do.
So throw off the bowlines.
Sail away from the safe harbor.
Catch the trade winds in your sails.
Explore. Dream. Discover."