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Trusted local news leader for Prescott area communities since 1882
12:23 AM Wed, Sept. 26th

Column: Understanding language means looking for the melody

When I was a kid, one of my heroes was Tom Sawyer. There were days when I thought about becoming Huck Finn, but I wasn’t cut out for the role. I was close to my parents, especially dependent-wise, and couldn’t bring myself to ape his free-wheeling, non-conformist behavior.

Besides, we already had a neighborhood youngster who fit that role. He went where he wanted to when he wanted to. Some days he didn’t show up for school; some days he would leave at recess and once he spent the day at the Kansas City Zoo — visiting friends, he told us. Whenever we saw a police car in the neighborhood, we could be pretty certain they were looking for Claude.

But as Max Shulman used to say, I digress! I have strayed from the real subject of this column which is Tom and Huck’s creator: Samuel Clemens. I loved his books, but the older I get the more fascinated I become by the stories I read about his life.

And one of those I find most humorous centered on his communication with his wife and good friends. Put succinctly, his private communications frequently were filled with words that would be inappropriate for his books, columns and lectures. In other words, he was a big-time cusser!

It is also on the record that Mrs. Clemens found this predilection considerably less than appealing.

Apparently through the years she valiantly tried a variety of approaches to break her husband of his excessive and constant use of four-letter words. To no avail.

Finally, in despair, she lit on the inspired strategy of using the same words herself for a whole day — which she did.

Now as we all know, there are just not many things more galling than to try some dramatic strategy and get, in response, no response. But, as the story goes, that is what she got.

Finally, as they were preparing for bed following what she considered to be an especially inspired use of the vilest words she knew, and getting nary a nod of acknowledgement from her husband, she could stand it no longer.

“Sam,” she said, “didn’t you hear any of those horrible words I’ve been using all day? Don’t they sound terrible to you when I say them?”

“My dear,” he replied, “I heard them all, and I commend you on your splendid use of them. But I regret to tell you that even though you have the lyrics down well, you’ve completely missed the melody.”

Unfortunately, history does not record Mrs. Clemens’ response.

But Sam made his point. Unless you understand the feelings behind the words, they are empty.

Too many of us, I fear, get hung up on words when we should be concerned with what is behind them. Usually the melody is more critical.

Most of us struggle to express ourselves clearly. What we say is often not exactly what we mean, or we feel that what you think you heard is not what we meant to say.

Clemens had it right. Pay attention to the feelings behind the words.

We may not be good with the lyrics, but the melody lingers on.