In a recent question at Spanish Language it has been asked about the translation of "backhanded" into Spanish as "treacherous". I answered that that is an adaptation more than a translation because of a pun of words in the context of the original text to be translated, an excerpt of The adventures of Tom Sawyer, which goes like this:

“Why, that ain’t anything. I can’t fall; that ain’t the way it is in the book. The book says, ‘Then with one back-handed stroke he slew poor Guy of Guisborne.’ You’re to turn around and let me hit you in the back.”

The argumentation for my answer starts by assuming that the kid that says that is misunderstanding the word "backhanded", giving it the sense of "stabbing someone in the back" instead of "stabbing someone in the direction of the back [of the hand]".

I would like to know:

  • Is my assumption correct?
  • If so, is "backhanded" really a word that can be easily misunderstood by a young kid in the way the novel depicts it? Or at least by a kid that lived in the 19th century? Or is it just a somewhat forced pun by author Mark Twain?
  • "Backhand" has several different meanings, depending on context and culture.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 13:05
  • The back of the hand would have been an incredible blow to slay "poor Guy of Guisborne." Obviously a sword or mace was used. And the dictionary is the remedy for all the potential confusion, of course.
    – Robusto
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 13:30
  • @Robusto - A dictionary won't reveal all the possible meanings of the term. It's likely got half a dozen derived from racket sports alone.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 13:33
  • Also, it should be understood that much of the action and dialog in Tom Sawyer is based on misunderstandings.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 13:36
  • @Robusto yes, the text cited in the book is about a sword fight, so it refers to a stab in the direction of the back of the hand. What I want to know is if the misunderstanding depicted in the book is common among young kids, or if it is a forced pun by the author. Note that the kids in the novel might not have access to a dictionary.
    – Charlie
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 13:36

1 Answer 1


In context for they talked “by the book,” from memory

Explains that they are not using their own familiar language.

The source "back-handed" certainly meant by the supposed original author of Robin-hood as a stroke from the back of a blade in the same way we would now use it in tennis.

However a child who had not heard the term used in such context could easily transliterate differently and as with many an amusing story of its time Twain is drawing such malaprops to the readers attention as a double-entendre.

Such a reverse thrust could well be defined as "treacherous" so in this case coincidentally works for the one meaning but likely will lose the duality.

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