8 Words from Mark Twain

by Angela Tung on December 10, 2013

On this day in 1884, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published for the first time. In celebration we’ve rounded up eight words coined or popularized by the novel’s author, a guy you might know as Mark Twain.

bicentennial

“New Orleans intended to fittingly celebrate, this present year, the bicentennial anniversary of this illustrious event; but when the time came, all her energies and surplus money were required in other directions, for the flood was upon the land then, making havoc and devastation everywhere.”

Life on the Mississippi, 1883

Usage of the word bicentennial, meaning occurring every two hundred years, has been steadily increasing since the 1880s. The usage rose sharply in the 1970s, probably due to the United State Bicentennial, and then again in the mid-1980s, perhaps due to the bicentennial of the Statue of Liberty.

blip

“We took him a blip in the back and knocked him off.”

St. Nicholas, 1894

Twain’s usage of blip here means “any sudden brisk blow or twitch; a quick popping sound,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and is probably imitative in origin. The word came to refer to “a spot of light on a radar or sonar screen” around 1945, and the figurative meaning of “a temporary or insignificant phenomenon” in the mid-1960s.

A brontosaurus on a 1962 panorama of the Front Range Foothills

brontosaurian

“Two of these cults are known as the Shakespearites and the Baconians, and I am the other one—the Brontosaurian.”

Is Shakespeare Dead? 1909

Brontosaurian here means “of or pertaining to a brontosaurus,” says the OED, and therefore figuratively, “antiquated; clumsy, ineffectual.”

The word gained peak usage in the 1920s, about 10 years after Twain’s, before dropping off and gaining some up-and-down frequency from the 1940s through the 1980s before dropping off again.

bug

“Well, sir, his dead-lights were bugged out like tompions; and his mouth stood that wide open that you could have laid a ham in it without him noticing it.”

Rambling Idle Excursion, 1877

Bug here meaning “to protrude” might be an alteration of bulge, although one could imagine it meaning having eyes resembling that of a bug.

cocoon

“We snatched on a few odds and ends of clothing, cocooned ourselves in the proper red blankets, and plunged along the halls and out into the whistling wind bareheaded.”

A Tramp Abroad, 1880

Twain’s use of cocoon as to mean to wrap in something resembling a cocoon is the earliest recorded. The word cocoon ultimately comes from the Greek kokkos, “seed, berry.” Cocoon also has a newer meaning of “to stay inside and be inactive.”

lunkhead

“So the duke said these Arkansaw lunkheads couldn’t come up to Shakespeare; what they wanted was low comedy—and maybe something ruther worse than low comedy, he reckoned.”

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884

A lunkhead is slang for a stupid person or blockhead. This word may be an alteration of lumphead. The usage of lunkhead far surpasses that of lumphead.

slim jim

“Got it, slim Jim!”

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, 1889

A slim Jim here refers to “a very slim or thin person,” and also means anything long, thin, or narrow, such as slim-jim pants or a slim-jim tie. In 1902, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, slim jim referred to a type of “slender cigar,” and in 1975 to the meat snack.

slumgullion

“We could not eat the bread or the meat, nor drink the ‘slumgullion.’”

Roughing It, 1872

The slumgullion Twain is referring to “a cheap drink.” It also means “a watery meat stew” and “offal or refuse of fish of any kind; also, the watery refuse, mixed with blood and oil, which drains from blubber.”

The word may come from slum meaning “in metallurgy, [the] same as slime,” and the dialectal gullion, “mud,” which may come from the Irish Gaelic goilín, “pit.”

[Photo: "Brontosaurus," CC BY 2.0 by Miranda Celeste Hale]

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