Monday, April 25, 2011

Well Twained

Everyone knows, or at least believes, that Sam Clemens adopted the name Mark Twain because he heard Mississippi riverboat captains call out that phrase when measuring with a sounding line, indicating water depth of two fathoms, deep enough to be safe for boats.  More on that story later.  But what about the computer software protocol known as TWAIN?

The TWAIN technology regulates the way scanners and digital cameras communicate with personal computers. And what has it do with Mark Twain, or Shania Twain, or Lionel Twain?  Actually, nothing.  According to people who should know, TWAIN is an acronym of “Technology Without An Interesting Name.” 

Now what about that Mark Twain legend?  It’s true enough that riverboat captains used that phrase (twain comes from Old English twegen, meaning “two”).  But Twain gives credit to Captain Isaiah Sellers for having invented the name, which the captain used to sign short pieces of river news tidbits that he contributed to the New Orleans Picayune.

But wait!  Several authorities have questioned the whole business of the riverboat jargon and claim that mark twain refers to a running bar tab that Twain regularly incurred while drinking at John Piper's saloon in Virginia City, Nevada. Whenever he invited a friend to join him for a drink, he would tell the bartender to “mark twain,” meaning put two drinks on his tab.

Twain dismissed this tale as twaddle.  He wrote:

“Mark Twain was the nom de plume of one Captain Isaiah Sellers, who… died in 1869 and as he could no longer need that signature, I laid violent hands upon it without asking permission of the proprietor's remains. That is the history of the nom de plume I bear.”

The word twain was memorably used by Rudyard Kipling in “The Battle of East and West,” in which he wrote that “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.”  In 1889 in Elmira, New York, the young Kipling interviewed Twain, who had no idea who his interviewer was. He found out later, when both of them received honorary degrees from Oxford University in 1907.

No one knows who the Bard of Buffalo Bayou is, either, and what’s more, no one cares.  Can you blame them?

            “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the  
                     twain shall meet,
            Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great 
                     Judgment Seat.”
            So Kipling wrote, but he might wish to take that 
                     statement back,
            For there’s one place the twain can meet—and that is 
                     on the twack.


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