Mark Twain and the Art of Swearing

Most people should not swear. This is not a moral judgment but an artistic one. The fact is, most people don’t know how to swear any more than they know how to play the bassoon. Both require years of practice and expert instruction. Yet virtually all the swearing one hears in the course of a day sounds trite, discordant, and uninspired. The lack of melody and imagination offends the ear more than the words offend the sense of decency. Profanity should therefore be left to the skilled and well-trained professional.


Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain (1835-1910), was just such a professional. He possessed a gift for picturesque phrasing and acquired the necessary training to become a master of the craft. He learned the art from the best practitioners—mostly steamboatmen on the Mississippi River and miners in the Far West. This was a time when vivid swearing captured the youth, spirit, and vitality of young America, a time when gifted swearers commanded respect and admiration.


Mark Twain


Clemens wrote that when the mate of a Mississippi steamboat gave the simplest order, “he discharged it like a blast of lightning and sent a long, reverberating peal of profanity thundering after it.” The average landsman, if he wanted the gangplank moved a little forward, might say, “James, or William, one of you push that plank forward, please.” The mate of a steamboat, on the other hand, would roar, “Here, now, start that gang-plank for’ard! Lively, now! What’re you about! Snatch it! snatch it! There! there! Aft again! aft again! Don’t you hear me? Dash it to dash! are you going to sleep over it! ‘Vast heaving. ‘Vast heaving, I tell you! Going to heave it clear astern? WHERE’re you going with that barrel? forard with it ‘fore I make you swallow it, you dash-dash-dash-dashed split between a tired mud-turtle and a crippled hearse-horse!” Clemens wished at the time he could talk like that.


Clemens eventually became a licensed riverboat pilot. But several years later, when the Civil War shut down traffic on the Mississippi, he decided to try his fortunes in the gold fields and silver mines of California and the Nevada Territory. There he discovered that miners were no less adept at swearing than steamboatmen. He found that “when it comes to pure ornamental cursing,” the American miner “is gifted above the sons of men.” He admired their talents: “There is nothing like listening to an artist—all his passions passing away in lava, smoke, thunder, lightning, and earthquake.”


Clemens soon developed into an artist himself. During his time as a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada, he and his young newspaper colleagues liked to play practical jokes on one another. A joke that made Clemens furious, however, is when the printers would steal the shade to his kerosene lamp. “Now the printers knew that to steal the shade of Mr. Clemens’ lamp caused him to burn with a slow fury,” recalled a fellow journalist. “So they stole it as often as they could for the pleasure of hearing him swear—an art at which he excelled.”


In 1864 Clemens lived for a time on Minna Street in San Francisco with his partner Steve Gillis. Early one morning Gillis awoke to find Clemens standing at the door holding a large revolver and shaking from the cold. A dog had started howling and Clemens wanted to shoot it, but he was shivering so much that he could not draw a steady bead. “Sam, don’t shoot him,” said Gillis. “Just swear at him. You can easily kill him at that range with your profanity.” Gillis later claimed that Clemens then let loose “such a scorching, singeing blast that the brute’s owner sold him next day for a Mexican hairless dog.”


By the time Clemens gave up the rugged life of the West for more sedate living in the East, he was at the top of his form and could swear with the best of them. He could blaspheme, he said, “in a way that made my breath smell of brimstone.” Swearing by then had become so much a part of his character, that even after he established himself as a famous writer, married a New England girl of good social standing, bought a fashionable house in Hartford, and started raising a family, he could not curb his blasphemous speech. “There ought to be a room in this house to swear in,” he told a friend. “It’s dangerous to have to repress an emotion like that.” He observed that under certain trying circumstances swearing provides relief denied even to prayer.


A modern biographer mourned the fact that he had never heard Jenny Lind sing or Mark Twain swear. The juxtaposition seems appropriate, for those who did hear Mark Twain swear testified that it was the performance of a master. A woman named Elizabeth Wallace occasionally heard Clemens in his billiard room: “Gently, slowly, with no profane inflexions of voice, but irresistibly as though they had the headwaters of the Mississippi for their source, came this stream of unholy adjectives and choice expletives.” She was impressed rather than shocked.


The family maid, Katy Leary, recalled that Mark Twain’s profanity was too imaginative to really seem bad. “It was sort of funny,” she remembered, “and a part of him somehow. Sort of amusing it was—and gay—not like real swearing.”


One day Jean Clemens, Mark Twain’s young daughter, grew offended by a man swearing in the street outside. Katy Leary reminded her that she often heard her father swear in the same way. “Oh, no, Katy!” said Jean. “You’re mistaken. That wasn’t swearing. That was only one of papa’s jokes!”


Friend and early biographer Albert Bigelow Paine wrote that the river and mines had developed Mark Twain’s gift for profanity “in a rare perfection. To hear him denounce a thing was to give one the fierce, searching delight of galvanic waves. Every characterization seemed the most perfect fit possible until he applied the next. And somehow his profanity was seldom an offense. It was not mere idle swearing; it seemed always genuine and serious. His selection of epithet was always dignified and stately, from whatever source—and it might be from the Bible or the gutter.”


Clemens’s wife, Livy, was one of the few who did not appreciate her husband’s swearing, and he tried to keep watch on his tongue whenever she was close by. But one day something irritated him, and, thinking his wife could not hear, he launched into a torrent of red-hot profanity. When he entered his wife’s room a short time later, she coolly repeated word-for-word everything he had said.


“Livy,” he replied, astounded yet amused, “did it sound like that?”


“Of course it did,” she said, “only worse. I wanted you to hear just how it sounded.”


“Livy, it would pain me to think that when I swear it sounds like that. You got the words right, Livy, but you don’t know the tune.”


When Livy’s younger brother, Jervis, first heard Mark Twain swear, he found it much different from the “heavy, guttural, vulgar thing we call profanity. It came trippingly, almost musically, from the tongue. It was artistic compared with the ordinary variety.”


Mark Twain lived during Victorian times. That may explain why people commented on the brilliance of his profanity, yet nobody recorded exactly what he said. The best indication we have of his talents comes from a letter in which he makes reference to a “quadrilateral astronomical incandescent son of a bitch.”


Said Mark Twain towards the end of his life, “If I cannot swear in heaven I shall not stay there.”


2 thoughts on “Mark Twain and the Art of Swearing

  1. This is one of the most deeply satisfying posts I have ever read. It leaves me perfectly hydraulic. Many thanks.

  2. Brilliant!

    I’ve been in a major conversation with my three sons about the coarseness of language in the younger generations. I’ve commended your article to them.

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