What’s in a Name?

More than time spent on steamboats — if you believe Mark Twain’s version of history.

December 23, 2015

Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain

Clemens spent years on the Mississippi River, where “twain” was a common term. New York Public Library

Historians question the tale’s veracity, but as the man ­himself told it, the pseudonym Mark Twain was stolen — not from a ­Mississippi River term, but from a cranky captain. Young Samuel Clemens claimed to have been frustrated reading the river reports from a long-in-the-tooth skipper who embellished his ­basic information with sidebars intended to make him sound erudite. An aspiring writer at the time, Clemens mocked his elder in print, penning a feature-length river notation with endless parenthetical references. The captain, enraged, never wrote again, and Clemens stole the pen name for himself. Whether the story is true is debatable, but that was the genius of Twain’s tales: One never knew which bend they might follow next.


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