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A Dog’s Tale

My father was a St. Bernard, my mother was a collie, but I am a Presbyterian. This is what my mother told me; I do not know these nice distinctions myself. To me they are only fine large words meaning nothing. My mother had a fondness for such; she liked to say them, and see other dogs look surprised, and envious, as wondering how she got so much education. But indeed it was not real education, it was only show; she got the words by listening in the dining room and drawing room when there was company, and by going with the children to Sunday school and listening there; and whenever she heard a large word she said it over to herself many times, and so was able to keep it until there was a dogmatic gathering in the neighborhood, then she would get it off and surprise and distress them all, from pocket-pup to mastiff, which rewarded her for all her trouble.

If there was a stranger he was nearly sure to be suspicious; and when he got his breath again he would ask her what it meant. And she always told him. He was never expecting this, but thought he would catch her; so when she told him, he was the one that looked ashamed, whereas he had thought it was going to be she. The others were always waiting for this, and glad of it and proud of her, for they knew what was going to happen, because they had had experience. When she told the meaning of a big word they were all so taken up with admiration that it never occurred to any dog to doubt if it was the right one; and that was natural, because, for one thing, she answered up so promptly that it seemed like a dictionary speaking, and for another thing, where could they find out whether it was right or not? for she was the only cultivated dog there was.

By and by when I was older, she brought home the word Unintellectual, one time, and worked it pretty hard all the week at different gatherings, making much unhappiness and despondency; and it was at this time that I noticed that during that week she was asked for the meaning at eight different assemblages and flashed out a fresh definition every time, which showed me that she had more presence of mind than culture, though I said nothing, of course. She had one word which she always kept on hand and ready, like a life-preserver, a kind of emergency-word to strap on when she was likely to get washed overboard in a sudden way—that was the word Synonymous.

When she happened to fetch out a long word which had had its day weeks before and its prepared meanings gone to her dump-pile, if there was a stranger there of course it knocked him groggy for a couple of minutes, then he would come to, and by that time she would be away down the wind on another tack and not expecting anything; so when he’d hail and ask her to cash-in, I (the only dog on the inside of her game) could see her canvas flicker a moment—but only just a moment—then it would belly out taut and full and she would say as calm as a summer’s day, “it’s synonymous with supererogation” or some godless long reptile of a word like that, and go placidly about and skim away on the next tack perfectly comfortable, you know, and leave that stranger looking profane and embarrassed and the initiated slatting the floor with their tails in unison, and their faces transfigured with a holy joy.

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From Mark Twain’s Book of Animals, Edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Illustrated by Barry Moser. Text established by the Mark Twain Project, the Bancroft Library; © 2010 by the Mark Twain Foundation, published by the University of California Press.
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Submitted by Lois | July 16 2010 |

Love this! The first sentence is my favorite. Mark Twain was so clever. His birthday is not until November 30th (I know because it's my b-day too!). I guess Bark is starting the celebration early!

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