Glossary and Comments
- Mark Twain is the pen name of Samuel
Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), the author of The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). The origin of his pen name is
uncertain, but it is likely to have originated from the call of riverboat
captains sounding the river bottom. The call of “mark twain”
meant two fathoms (12 feet), which was considered the minimum for safe
Act I, Scene 1
- St Petersburg, Missouri, where the action of Big
River and the novel Huckleberry Finn start, is a fictional
town on the Mississippi River, but it is based on the real Hannibal,
Missouri, which was Samuel Clemens’s home town. The action of the novel Tom Sawyer takes place here, as
does the beginning of The
Unsinkable Molly Brown. (Hannibal is the birthplace of the real
Margaret Brown, and the birthplace of William Powell “Bill” Lear,
of Lear Jet.) Also, the show Damn
makes reference to Hannibal.
Act I, Scene 2
- towpath: a path along a river or canal used by animals (horses,
mules, donkeys, &c) towing boats. Today, some towpaths have been
preserved as walking trails, since boats usually move under their own power,
and barges are towed by towboats.
- Bully, as used by
Ben and Tom, means “excellent, or
splendid”. It was in this sense that President Theodore Roosevelt
used it; for example, bully pulpit, by which he meant the office of
a gullible or foolish person.
- Watches at the
time of our story were invariably pocket watches. Wrist watches were
invented around the late 19th century, and were at that time considered only
appropriate for ladies, being seen as a kind of bracelet. But because
of the demands of artillery in World War I, men began wearing wrist watches,
in order to keep both hands free. And no one would consider a soldier
returning from the war to be a “girly man”.
- blame, blamed: slang for damn, damned [I, 2 ff]
- Light out for the western territories: Mark Twain actually
wrote “light out for the territories”: in 1840, the
territories to the west of both Missouri and Arkansas were unorganized.
Directly west of Missouri is what became Kansas, which was considered a
desert, fit only for Indians. To the west of Arkansas was what was
informally known as “Indian
Territory” because it had been allocated to the Five Civilized
Tribes: viz. the Cherokee,
[I, 2; & II, 10]
Act I, Scene 3
- Huck prefers to live in a sugar hogshead, rather than in Mrs
Douglas’s house. A hogshead is a large barrel or cask, holding
from 46 to 140 gallons. As a unit of measure for wine, one hogshead
is 63 gallons; for beer or ale, it is 54 gallons.
Act I, Scene 4
- A cur is a mongrel or otherwise inferior dog. [“Hand for the Hog”]
- Jackson’s Island, where Huck and Jim begin their raft trip down
the Mississippi, was modeled on Glasscock’s Island, which is a few miles
down the river from Hannibal. [I, 4]
- It wasn’t until after the Civil War that cigarettes were
introduced in the United States. So Tom’s hog song contains an
anachronism. [I, 4: “Hand for the Hog”]
- cottonmouth: a semiaquatic snake, usually called a water
cheap rotgut whiskey, supposedly so named because of the
distance it would cause the drinker to run before passing out, or because it
was powerful enough to hit a man from forty rods. (A rod
is an old English measurement equal to 16.5 feet, so 40 rods is 660 feet,
which is equal to 220 yards or 1/8 mile.)
- Delirium tremens: an acute
delirium caused by abstinence from alcohol by
one who is used to drinking to excess.
- A tadpole (also called a polliwog or pollywog) is a larval frog or
- A Barlow knife
jack knife of one blade manufactured in Sheffield, England, specially for export to the
United States from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries.
Act I, Scene 5
a small refracting telescope.
a crude shelter with only one pitch.
- As used in the antebellum South, an abolitionist was anyone who was
opposed to slavery, whether by immediate or gradual, or mandatory or
voluntary, abolition. Southern white society, both high and low, did not
a long fishing line with many shorter lines and hooks attached to it
(usually suspended between buoys).
- The expression “sold down the river” refers to what Miss
Watson is contemplating doing to Jim. Most slaves in Missouri were
domestics, whereas in the cotton states most worked in the fields.
- d’bloon: a doubloon, or doblón, a former Spanish gold
coin that circulated in the Spanish American colonies and in United States,
from colonial times into the 19th century.
- The Strange Woman that Huck meets reveals her name in the novel as
Judith Loftus. In the novel, she discovers that Huck is not a girl by
dropping a lump of lead into his lap while his hands are holding yarn. When he instinctively claps his legs together to catch the lump, rather
than letting it fall into the skirt he is wearing, as a girl would be likely
to do, she has her suspicion confirmed. (His inability to thread a needle made her suspicious; the
second trick confirmed her suspicions.)
Act I, Scene 6
- Goshen, Missouri, is located in Mercer
County, in north central Missouri, on the Iowa border. It is named
for the Biblical land
of Goshen, in Egypt, where the children of Israel lived from the days of
Joseph until the
- Muddy Water: The Mississippi River is muddy, but most of the mud
comes from the Missouri
River, which flows into the Mississippi near St
Louis. Jim and Huck board the raft (and sing the song!) five days
upriver from St Louis!
Act I, Scene 7
- In 1840, the city of St
Louis had a population of about 20,000 and grew rapidly after that,
mostly from immigrants from Germany, Bohemia,
Italy, and Ireland, so by 1850 the population was around 78,000. At
one time, St Louis was the head of navigation on the Mississippi,
because of the rapids on the upper river.
- skiff: a flat-bottomed boat propelled by oars
- Dolphin, in French, is Dauphin, which was the title of the
eldest son of the king of France from 1349 to 1830. The name comes
from the province of Dauphiné, which was annexed to France in 1349
and given to the king’s eldest son as an appanage.
The former rulers, the counts of Vienne, used a dolphin as a device on their
coat of arms, and were nicknamed Le Dauphin.
When the count sold his domains to the king of France in 1349, he insisted
that the French heir bear the title. The Dauphin in question was the
XVII, son of Louis
XVI and Marie
Antoinette. He was born in 1785 and executed in 1795. Rumors that he had not
been executed quickly spread, and hundreds of impostors appeared in the 19th
century. (In our age, similar rumors have circulated about President
Kennedy and Elvis
Presley.) If he had lived to the time of Huckleberry Finn, he
would have been 55 years old in 1840. Huck, however, refers to Louis
the son of Louis XIV (reigned
1643-1715) [this may be an error in the Big River libretto], who was known as Le
Grand Dauphin, and lived from 1661 to 1711, predeceasing his
father. (Thus Louis
XIV was succeeded not by his son, nor his grandson, but his
great-granson, who became Louis
XV. Interestingly, Louis
XV was succeeded not by his son, but by his grandson, who became Lous
XVI. In 1840, Le Grand Dauphin would be 179 years old!)
a position of employment; a post
Act I, Scene 8
Illinois, is located at the confluence of the Mississippi
and Ohio rivers,
and is the southernmost town in Illinois. Unlike the capital of Egypt,
the town’s name is pronounced KAY-ro.
- nation: slang for damnation
- The title Duke
of Bridgewater existed from 1720 to 1803. Bilge
is the water that collects below the decks of a ship--all wooden ships
leak!--to be bailed or pumped
- Your grace is the traditional form for addressing a duke or
duchess; your majesty for addressing a king or queen.
Act II, Scene 1
having to do with acting or stage performance
the pseudoscience that studies the shape of the skull to determine
personality and destiny
- Low comedy is distinguished from high comedy in that the
audience laughs at the actors in low comedy, but with the
actors in high comedy. Whereas low comedy emphasizes gags and
slapstick and misuse of language, high comedy emphasizes cleverness of
dialogue and perhaps irony. Traditionally, a drama named a “comedy” ends with a marriage, whereas a drama named a
“tragedy” ends with a death.
Act II, Scene 2
- A medicine show
was a traveling show, mostly in the 19th century, that hawked some medicine,
usually an elixir, that was promoted to cure all kinds of ailments, and
often made from “snake oil”.
- Son of Adam means a man or boy, and Daughter of Eve means a
woman or girl; these are poetic terms frequently used by C. S. Lewis in the Chronicles
the civil war, boasted more millionaires per capita than any other city in
the United States. Because it was not destroyed in the civil war, it
has more antebellum mansions than any other city. Before steamboats,
flatboatmen and keelboatmen would float their produce down the Ohio
Rivers, and sell their goods at Natchez, including selling the boat for
lumber. Then they would make their way overland on the Natchez
Trace to Nashville, and find their way home.
- New Orleans,
before the civil war, was the only really large city in the South, and was
the fourth largest city in the United States. It was the capital of
Louisiana until 1849. It was and is a major ocean port. Before
the civil war, it had a major role in the slave trade, but also had the most
prosperous community of free blacks in the United States.
- Drury Lane is
a street in the Covent Garden area of Greater London. It is well known
from a children’s rhyme that mentions the muffin man. There are two theaters
located there, the Theatre
Royal, Drury Lane and the New
- The Walter Scott is the name of the shipwrecked boat Huck and Jim
find. It is named for Sir Walter
Scott, the Scottish writer of
romantic novels, such as Ivanhoe and Rob Roy, the kind that
Mark Twain had little use for. (He also wrote poems, such as The
Lady of the Lake and Marmion.)
Sir Walter organized a visit
George IV to Edinburgh in 1822, after which tartans and kilts became
symbols of Scottish national identity.
- Tarring and
feathering was a form of punishment dating back at least as far as
the time of the crusades (12th century). It was never used as official
punishment in the United States, but was sometimes administered by a
mob. In rural areas, both pine tar and chicken feathers were usually
plentiful. The person (almost always a man) to be punished was
stripped to the waist, and hot tar was poured over him. Then feathers
were thrown at him, or he was forced to roll in feathers. He was
usually paraded around town as a form of humiliation, with the hope that he
wouldn’t return. The feathers were usually stuck to him for several
- To shin means to move rapidly on foot: Duke: “We’ll shin for the river, like the dickens was after us.“
(The dickens is a euphemism for the devil.)
- A flathead is a foolish or gullible person.
Act II, Scene 3
- A greenhorn is a naïve or inexperienced person (tyro; beginner),
especially one who is easily deceived.
- high-toned: aristocratic, snobbish
- The unities [II,3]
are the three rules of drama, as articulated by Aristotle. Not all classical
drama preserved the unities, and Mark Twain didn’t seem to think much of
them (Huckleberry Finn certainly does not keep any of them!).
- unity of time: the drama should take place within 24 hours.
- unity of space: the drama should take place in one location
- unity of action: all action in the drama should advance the
plot--there should essentially be no subplots.
- On the boards refers to a theater stage.
- A valet is a
gentleman’s personal attendant, or a “gentleman’s gentleman“, such
as Jeeves was to
Bertie Wooster, or as Kato
was to the Green
Hornet. A valet is different from a butler, in that a
valet is a servant attached to a person, whereas a butler is attached to a
house. Today, valets are uncommon, except in hotels and parking lots. The
word valet has been in the English language since 1567, and should be pronounced VAL-let, not
val-LAY. (Parking valets have been around only since 1960.)
Act II, Scene 4
- Arkansas was first organized as a territory in 1819 as the part of
Missouri Territory south of the parallel 36°30' N. At the time, it was
spelled Arkansaw, and only later was the “w” changed to an “s”, with the same pronunciation. The western portion was assigned
to Indians who had been forced out of their eastern lands by the time
Arkansas was admitted as a state in 1836. In the novel Huckleberry Finn, Arkansas is spelled Arkansaw.
In the state of Kansas, the Arkansas river is pronounced /ar'kænzəs/.
- The Young Fool sings "I’d like to get my
picture took“. This is surely an anachronism, because the Daguerreotype
was patented in 1839, and photography
did not become popular until around the time of the civil war.
- Joanna Wilkes is described by Huck as having a harelip, which is now
called a cleft
lip: a deformity of the upper lip.
Act II, Scene 5
- An orgy
is a revel that involves unrestrained indulgence, originally part of a
religious rite in the pagan cults of Dionysus or Orpheus. In that
sense the indulgence was primarily music, eating and drinking; it also
involved animal sacrifice. At some point, the indulgence came to be mainly
- Obsequy means a funeral rite.
- Riding (someone) out of town on a rail has nothing to do
with railroads. A rail is a long straight piece of wood or
metal; the word ruler is cognate. A man would be tied to a long
piece of wood and carried by several men out of town.
Act II, Scene 6
- By the living jingo! In this phrase, by jingo is a euphemism
for by Jesus. The term jingoism
entered the English language in 1878 with the meaning of "chauvninstic
Act II, Scene 8
- The Man in
the Iron Mask refers to a mysterious prisoner held in various
prisons in France during the reign of Louis XIV.
Tom Sawyer no doubt learned the story from the novel The Vicomte of
Bragelonne: Ten Years Later, by Alexandre
Dumas, père, and is the third and last of the D’Artagnan romances. (The
first novel is The Three Musketeers.) It is long enough that it is
usually published in three volumes, the third of which is The Man in
the Iron Mask.
- The song Free at Last makes reference to an old spiritual song “Free
at Last”, quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr., remembered especially
from his “I have a dream” speech, delivered at the Lincoln
Memorial in Washington, DC, on August 28, 1963.
Act II, Scene 9
Act II, Scene 10
is an alcoholic beverage distilled from grains and aged in oak casks.
The grain can be barley, rye, wheat, or corn (maize). In Ireland
(always) and the United States (usually), the word is spelled whiskey,
whereas in Scotland, Wales, Canada, and Japan it is (always) spelled whisky.
The numbers in brackets refer to the Act and Scene numbers in Big River.
For example, [II, 3] means Act II, Scene 3.
- Last updated: 04/23/2020, from 8/15/2006 .
- For additions, suggestions, corrections,
or comments on this glossary, please email me: tf_mcq
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- Return to McQ’s theater page.
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