Friday, August 18, 2006

Literary Snippet – Mark Twain

There is always something interesting to learn.

Whilst browsing the latest catalogue from The Folio Society, my attention was drawn to the new Folio edition of Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain.

I hadn’t previously known that Mark Twain (whose other well known books include The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) was a pseudonym; after all, there are many American names which sound unusual to the English ear. Further investigation revealed that his real name was Samuel Clemens.

There are two quoted possibilities for the origin of his pseudonym. The author claimed that it came from the time spent on riverboats. In order to test the depth of water, a weighted line was let out into the water. A depth of twelve feet was considered safe and the crewman would shout out ‘mark twain’.

However, there are some who maintain that his name came from time spent in the bars. On each occasion he ordered a double, he would instruct the barman to ‘mark twain’ on his account.

Either way, the knowledge will no doubt provide for a few moments of intellectual chat around the occasional dinner table.

Some of my favourite quotes attributed to Twain are:

  • Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.
  • Golf is a good walk spoilt.
  • It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt.
  • Respect your superiors, if you have any.
  • I have been complimented many times and they always embarrass me; I always feel that they have not said enough.
  • Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have now referred to the Admiralty Manual of Seamanship – Volume 1 – dated 1964. Interestingly, this was standard issue at Dartmouth in 1968 and still contained a wealth of information more applicable to square riggers than ‘modern’ warships!! Now whilst there is no guarantee that Riverboats followed the guidance of the Admiralty Manual of Seamanship!!, it is highly likely that the system described therein was a reflection of custom and practice throughout the world for centuries.

In essence, my explanation was right – in that the two fathom mark would be called “by the mark – two” The reason for this is that on the original lead line, certain depths were literally marked with different things. 2 fathoms was two strips of leather, 3 fathoms was three strips, 5 fathoms was white duck material, 7 fathoms was red bunting.

All the fathom markers which were so marked were announced as “by the mark”. All the intervening (unmarked) ones were announced as “by the deep”.

Thus, two fathoms was, indeed, “by the mark” since that depth was marked with the two strips of leather. Four fathoms (unmarked) would have been “by the deep – 4”

So – “by the mark – two” – could easily have been shortened to “mark twain” – couldn’t it??!


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