Mark Twain cared about words: Pa’s boot with a couple of his toes leaking out of the front end; the sow lying in the middle of the street looking as happy as if she was on salary; and Miss Watson, a tolerable slim old maid, with goggles on.
“The difference between the almost right word and the right word,” he wrote, “is really a large matter – ’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.“
And, “Use the right word, not its second cousin.”
In his autobiography, he tells the story of a time his mother used the right words to teach him a lesson that lasted a lifetime.
There was, however, one small incident of my boyhood days which touched this matter, and it must have meant a good deal to me or it would not have stayed in my memory, clear and sharp, vivid and shadowless, all these slow-drifting years. We had a little slave boy whom we had hired from some one, there in Hannibal. He was from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and had been brought away from his family and his friends, half way across the American continent, and sold. He was a cheery spirit, innocent and gentle, and the noisiest creature that ever was, perhaps. All day long he was singing, whistling, yelling, whooping, laughing – it was maddening, devastating, unendurable. At last, one day, I lost all my temper, and went raging to my mother, and said Sandy had been singing for an hour without a single break, and I couldn’t stand it, and wouldn’t she please shut him up. The tears came into her eyes, and her lip trembled, and she said something like this—
“Poor thing, when he sings, it shows that he is not remembering, and that comforts me; but when he is still, I am afraid he is thinking, and I cannot bear it. He will never see his mother again; if he can sing, I must not hinder it, but be thankful for it. If you were older, you would understand me; then that friendless child’s noise would make you glad.”
It was a simple speech, and made up of small words, but it went home, and Sandy’s noise was not a trouble to me any more. She never used large words, but she had a natural gift for making small ones do effective work. She lived to reach the neighborhood of ninety years, and was capable with her tongue to the last – especially when a meanness or an injustice roused her spirit.
From “Mark Twain on Slavery, How Religion Is Used to Justify Injustice, and What His Mother Taught Him About Compassion”