In the Adventures of Tom Sawyer novel (chapter XXVI) we can read the following:

“You don’t know me. Least you don’t know all about that thing. ’Tain’t robbery altogether—it’s revenge!” and a wicked light flamed in his eyes. “I’ll need your help in it. When it’s finished—then Texas. Go home to your Nance and your kids, and stand by till you hear from me.”

In the Spanish translation the "go home to your Nance" part is translated as something closer to "go home with your wife", and we are trying to understand why. One of the reasons I thought about is that that maybe 'Nancy' was not the real name of the character's wife, but rather a generic way to refer to someone's wife, because the speaker says "you don't know me", why would he know the other character's wife's name? Besides the name "Nance" or "Nancy" is never referred again in the book. But in the dictionary I can only find that the word is used nowadays as a way to refer to "an effeminate or homosexual man".

I cannot find any similar texts, so "Nance" does not seem to convey the meaning I thought and the text is probably to be taken literally. Nonetheless, the work was written in the 19th century, so I wonder: Was 'Nance' used as a generic way to refer to someone's wife in America in the 19th century when you did not know the name of that person's wife? If not, can at least be interpreted so in the context of this work?

  • "Was 'Nance' used as a generic way to ... ?" Can you tell us something about background research to find any clues or even leads?
    – Kris
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 10:30
  • @Kris my clue is the part about the speaker saying "you don't know me" and the name "Nance" not appearing again in the book.
    – Charlie
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 10:37
  • I'm not sure if that counts for research. Let's wait and see what others may contribute, though.
    – Kris
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 10:39
  • Two points...1) Sam Clemens had a sense of humor, and 2) he warmed not to try to make anything out of what he wrote.
    – J. Taylor
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 10:41
  • @Kris I've updated the question. I cannot find any similar texts to prove my theory is right, so by now I'm concluding that the name is to be taken literally. But the question remains.
    – Charlie
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 10:54

2 Answers 2


Her name was Magill, and she called herself Lil, but everyone knew her as Nancy...

(Paul McCartney, "Rocky Raccoon")

Since you're asking about American slang, a good resource to use is H. L. Mencken's The American Language:

Hollywood, always under heavy pressure from official and volunteer censors, has its own Index Expurgatorius, augmented from time to time. It includes, as permanent fixtures, broad (for woman), chippy, cocotte, courtesan, eunuch, fairy (in the sense of homosexual), floozy, harlot, hot mamma, huzzy, madam (in the sense of brothel-keeper), nance, pansy, slut, trollop, tart and wench, and of course whore.....

Mencken continues at length as only Mencken can, but hereyou see nance buried in a list of misogynistic words that refer to women who are not necessarily ladies.

Now, back to Mark Twain, who is famous for saying "The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug".

In the passage of Tom Sawyer you refer to, Injun Joe is colluding with his accomplice about how he'll abscond with some booty they've stolen, unaware that Tom and Huck are listening in.

Although "Nance" might be a name, it almost certainly has this additional meaning, so that Twain can clue us in on just how low these fellows are. Injun Joe is likely insulting the accomplice's wife, because that's how Twain has drawn his character.


In your example, I am 99% it is being used as a name (also regarding the comments), because...

I can find no record of Nance being used to mean that.

Using a quick Google Ngram viewer (https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=nance&case_insensitive=on&year_start=1700&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t4%3B%2Cnance%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Bnance%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BNance%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BNANCE%3B%2Cc0) then onto a Google Books search where I searched books in the period of 1700 - 1849 (https://www.google.com/search?q=%22nance%22&tbm=bks&tbs=cdr:1,cd_min:1700,cd_max:1849&lr=lang_en&safe=active&ssui=on) then again 1853 - 1866 (https://www.google.com/search?q=%22nance%22&tbm=bks&tbs=cdr:1,cd_min:1853,cd_max:1866&lr=lang_en&safe=active&ssui=on) there is no record (as far as I can see) of it being used that way. (The search also included handy dictionaries from that time period).

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