“A Powerful Agent is the Right Word”

October 22, 2006 at 9:53 pm 1 comment

I ran across this quote by Mark Twain.  It’s from an essay he wrote on William Dean Howells in 1906:

A powerful agent is the right word. Whenever we come upon one of those intensely right words in a book or a newspaper the resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically prompt.

As soon as I read that an example sprang to mind – Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Pearl Harbor speech.   Sean and I got to view the typed draft (with Roosevelt’s last minute changes) in the National D-Day Musuem in New Orleans.  We were surprised to see the original opening line.

From my journal entry dated January 8, 2005:

The most fascinating item in the musuem (in my opinion) was FDR’s first draft of the speech he gave after Pearl Harbor.  The speech is quite famous, especially the line:

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy…”

Well– in Roosevelt’s original draft he had the phrase “world history” in that sentence instead of “infamy”.  On the draft in the musuem, you can see where Roosevelt crossed out “world history” and scrawled “infamy” above it.


He sluffed off one syllable with his edit and yet the meaning of his sentence was more powerful, more true, more visceral.

True, the circumstances were serious and any speech on this matter would have had been powerful.  But, one would be hard pressed to improve upon the word choice of “infamy.”  The speech just would not have been the same.

With photographs, we’ve seen the impact of timing and angles.  And with speeches and publications, Twain was dead-on.  The right word can be a powerful agent.

Entry filed under: Journal Excerpt, Mark Twain, National D-Day Musuem, New Orleans, WWII.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. The Oracle  |  August 15, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    Also from Twain (I’m quoting from memory now):
    The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.


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