Podcast twain

Printable Version
Pronunciation: twayn Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: Two.

Notes: Rudyard Kipling must have been the last English speaker to use today's word as anything other than a name. He did so in his poem, The Ballad of East and West, which begins: "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." The phrase, "never the twain shall meet," however, has found a permanent place among our idiomatic phrases.

In Play: TwainThe most famous play on this word was made by perhaps the greatest word-player of us all, Samuel Clemens. As a boy, Clemens rode steamboats up and down the Mississippi, where sailing was safe in water two fathoms or more deep. The river boatmen who checked the depth would call out "mark twain" to alert the captain when their two-fathom-long lines struck bottom. He took that phrase as his pseudonym, Mark Twain.

Word History: PIE dwo- "two", which underlies today's word, shows up in Russian and Serbian dva, German zwei, Latin duo, French deux, Spanish dos, Portuguese dois, Hindi do, and Nepalese dui. However, it also appears in words where you might not expect it: twilight, of course, is when the two lights (day and night) meet. The reason you can only be between two things (you must be among more than two) is the tween "two" in the preposition. Does it sound a little like twine, the string made by twisting two threads together? No wonder. Finally, doubt is the result of French twitching Latin dubitare "to waver", that's right, between two choices. (We are delighted that Larry Brady, the Stargazer of the Alpha Agora, is never of twain minds when he spots a curious word like this one, which he suggested for today.)

Dr. Goodword,

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