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In the book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn there are several curious references to "the nation". For example, in chapter 22:

And at last, sure enough, [...] the horse broke loose, and away he went like the very nation, round and round the ring...

Next, in chapter, 23:

"But dis one do SMELL so like de nation, Huck."

There are also different uses of "the nation" in the book, for example in chapter 2:

but how in the nation are these fellows going to be ransomed if we don't know how to do it to them?

The last use is more common in the book, and does make more sense - "the nation" seems to refer to a large area, similar to the modern "how in the world" or "how on earth".

I can't really figure out the first two though - in both cases "the nation" seems to refer to something negative... What is the meaning of this idiom?

Note about the quotes - in all cases I have added the emphasis, and all the rest of the mistakes are [sic]. It is not an easy book to read.

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Oh - and I'm not quite sure if this is an Idiom or a Phrase (or something else). I'll be happy to edit if needed. (hmm... maybe I'm looking for the nation as an adjective. I'll stay with idiom for now) –  Kobi Aug 11 '11 at 15:47
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One possibility: it's a taboo deformation of damnation. But that's just a guess. And it doesn't explain "the very nation" from the first quote. –  JSBձոգչ Aug 11 '11 at 15:55

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

When I took a course on Mark Twain as an undergrad, the professor explained that "the nation" was a modification of "tarnation" which was itself a euphemism of "damnation" or "eternal damnation" (contracted) — euphemized because people in those days took damnation very seriously. So "the nation" would been a euphemism of a euphemism, and presumably somewhat softer. "The very nation" would have been a logical intensifier for the contracted euphemism.

I don't have any references to cite, because the only corroborative mentions I can discover in a Google search are themselves unsourced opinions. But I trust my old Twain prof.

It is worth noting that Twain, in his autobiography, notes that he was an inveterate user of profanity until one day when his wife caught him in full fury, and calmly repeated back to him all the swear words he had just used. Hearing those words from her lips, he says, so shamed him that he sought henceforth to modify his speech accordingly.

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Interesting. Just one more question: was the double euphemism actually used at the time, or did Twain invent it? Can it be found in other sources? Thanks! –  Kobi Aug 11 '11 at 18:25
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@Kobi: I would say it was almost certainly in use at the time. Twain was a careful writer and a careful listener, and he wouldn't have invented euphemisms for his characters to say. Read his satirical essay "On Cooper's Prose Style" for an indication of how he felt about language in fiction that doesn't ring true. –  Robusto Aug 11 '11 at 18:47
    
I figured that was the case. I'm still reading the book, but I also read a little about the subject. Anyway, thanks again! –  Kobi Aug 11 '11 at 19:15

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