“Use the right word…”: Mark Twain’s Mother


by Kathy Waller

I wrote the following for my personal blog nearly a year ago. Rereading it today, I decided it’s worth sharing again–not for my words, but for those of Jane Clemens. She must have been an exceptional woman, and she reared and exceptional son.


Mark Twain chose his words carefully: Pa’s boot with a couple of his toes leaking out of the front end; a sow lying in the middle of the street, looking as happy as if she was on salary; and Miss Watson, a tolerable slim old maid, with goggles on.

The difference between the almost right word and the right word,” he wrote, “is really a large matter – ’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.

And, “Use the right word, not its second cousin.”

In his autobiography, he tells the story of a time his mother used the right words to teach him a lesson that lasted a lifetime.



There was, however, one small incident of my boyhood days which touched this matter, and it must have meant a good deal to me or it would not have stayed in my memory, clear and sharp, vivid and shadowless, all these slow-drifting years. We had a little slave boy whom we had hired from some one, there in Hannibal. He was from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and had been brought away from his family and his friends, half way across the American continent, and sold. He was a cheery spirit, innocent and gentle, and the noisiest creature that ever was, perhaps. All day long he was singing, whistling, yelling, whooping, laughing – it was maddening, devastating, unendurable. At last, one day, I lost all my temper, and went raging to my mother, and said Sandy had been singing for an hour without a single break, and I couldn’t stand it, and wouldn’t she please shut him up. The tears came into her eyes, and her lip trembled, and she said something like this—

“Poor thing, when he sings, it shows that he is not remembering, and that comforts me; but when he is still, I am afraid he is thinking, and I cannot bear it. He will never see his mother again; if he can sing, I must not hinder it, but be thankful for it. If you were older, you would understand me; then that friendless child’s noise would make you glad.”

It was a simple speech, and made up of small words, but it went home, and Sandy’s noise was not a trouble to me any more. She never used large words, but she had a natural gift for making small ones do effective work. She lived to reach the neighborhood of ninety years, and was capable with her tongue to the last – especially when a meanness or an injustice roused her spirit.

From “Mark Twain on Slavery, How Religion Is Used to Justify Injustice, and What His Mother Taught Him About Compassion”


MOW cover - amazon pixKathy Waller blogs at Kathy Waller–Telling the Truth, Mainly,* and at Austin Mystery Writers. Her stories have been published in Mysterical-E and in Murder on Wheels: 11 Stories of Crime on the Move (Wildside, 2015).

*(Telling the Truth, Mainly refers to a line from Huckleberry Finn. The blog was formerly named To Write Is to Write Is to Write, an allusion to a quotation from Gertrude Stein. It was a good quotation but a bland title.)


13 thoughts on ““Use the right word…”: Mark Twain’s Mother

  1. This is a marvellous example of how a perfectly chosen word can bring forth a vivid image. Lovely blog post, Kathy. Thank you. I read Mark Twain as a schoolgirl, but now feel I need to find time to revisit his work.


  2. I type this with tears in my eyes after reading your blog. The messages–yours and Mark Twain’s–contained in this blog are elodquent and poignant. Thanks for sharing it! I had not read it before.


  3. Having grown up in the tri-state region, I’ve visited his childhood stomping grounds. He is and always will be one of my favorites. Probably due to his mother’s teachings. Thank you for sharing these wonderful words. Doris


  4. Thank you for sharing the blog post, Kathy. I’ve not read this before and it truly touches the heart. Words can wound, words can heal; words can cut and they can inspire. Should make us all ponder more of what type of writer, and human being, we want to be.


  5. What a wonderful lesson for Mark Twain to learn. It saddens me that kids, even back then, didn’t use their heads about such issues as slavery. I’m afraid I’m just as guilty of saying something I shouldn’t have said about a black classmate when I was in elementary school.


  6. Mark Twain fascinates me. One time I was in the Smokies in North Carolina and met a retired Virginia college professor through a mutual friend. He talked all about Twain, and not always in a positive light. I always like the story of how Twain was born during a Haley’s comet visit and died during a Haley visit. With the Confederate battle flag in the news since the Charleston killings, good to hear about the ills of slavery. In my writing, I’m always trying to find the right word, not just a word that appears right.

    Liked by 1 person

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