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The Vocabulary of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer"

Rob Jundt writes articles on literature, including poetry, and focuses analyses on vocabulary and the crafting of words.

Mark Twain, author of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer"

Mark Twain, author of "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.


Tom Sawyer is a great story filled with great wonder. It’s a book filled with simple life, innocent passion, and 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 might be hard [for them] to understand. But that was part of the book’s beauty. Twain not only tells a great story, but he also 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. 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."

-Mark Twain


Kit on February 22, 2017:

The quote at the bottom of the article isn't Twains it's Blaise Pascal's "o)

Rob Jundt (author) from Midwest USA on June 03, 2011:


I don't think they would recognize the Mighty Miss' now. Thanks for dropping by!


James on May 21, 2011:

Wonder what Tom and Huck would have to say about the current flooding of the Mississippi River?

babyclover on May 09, 2011:

I haven't read the book, but now I want to because of the amazing words in this hub! I'm doing a report on Mark Twain right now for school so I'll be sure to read it! Thank you!

Rob Jundt (author) from Midwest USA on February 27, 2011:

Thanks skarup for the kind comments. TO me, rich vocabulary in everyday language is diminishing. With the amount of "text speak" and other forms of quick communication, I feel the beauty of language as it was meant to be is on the decline. Hopefully, we can do our part to keep the sound and meaning of language alive. Thanks again for your input!


skarup on February 21, 2011:

Great hub! Always enjoyed reading this with my 5th graders. Reading aloud really helped! They always got a kick out of saying "sagacity". I used to challenge them to use certain vocabulary words during the day and see how other teachers would react. Looking forward to reading more Mark Twain hubs!

Rob Jundt (author) from Midwest USA on January 27, 2011:

Carolapple: Thanks for the kind comments. The real truth about this book, as with most of Twain's work, is that that all the words are great. It was tough just choosing a few. Thanks again for stopping by.


carolapple from Suffolk Virginia on January 27, 2011:

Love this! I especially like the idea of working these jewels of word and phrase into our everyday conversations. What a way to spice up our ordinary workaday speech!

ellen on July 04, 2010:

dude awesome book it's fun..! ;]

Andre Berenyi on November 07, 2009:

Dear Sir ,

I agree with you Tom Sawyer is a great writer he has created a real world of fiction in which youngters and even adults can acquire knowledge of the typical chilhood in the 19 century as well as improve their english vocabulary .

Marc Twain has created a real world as a whole as Balzac has in french Language .

Let's promote Marc Twain to the today readers .

André Berényi France , Nantes

Rob Jundt (author) from Midwest USA on May 27, 2009:

Thanks Frieda. I hope this book is as fun for your son as it was for me. Enjoy!

Jo Ann: Just give it time. Thanks for stopping by!

jo ann on May 03, 2009:

this is a really boring book

Frieda Babbley from Saint Louis, MO on May 02, 2009:

Fantastic. My son is reading Tom Sawyer in fifth grade right now. I'm going to pass your Mark Twain hubs along to him. Thanks much!

Rob Jundt (author) from Midwest USA on April 29, 2009:

Thanks y'al fer th' comments. Ther sur' 'preciated. -- Sorry! I couldn't help myself :)

Erick Smart on April 29, 2009:

I have always been a huge Twain fan. When we had to read Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in school the other kids complained about it, but I loved reading these books. I was always drawn into the sense of adventure and colorful characters.

Rebecca Graf from Wisconsin on April 27, 2009:

We've lost so much with our vocabulary - thanks for the reminder and the yearning to re-read a few classics.

Joanie Ruppel from Texas on April 15, 2009:

I have friends in Missouri who still talk this way. It has its own charm.