Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do.
Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.
-From Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer,1876.
In addition to a single-barreled, water-cooled machine gun, that met its heyday around 1885 and named for inventor, U.S.-born British engineer Sir Hiram S. Maxim (1840-1916) a maxim is also a saying that is widely accepted on its own merits. The first use of the word was to describe a legal term in the form of a. “proposition (ostensibly) expressing a general rule of law, or of equity.” It was an Anglo-Norman term spelled maxyme and can be first found in print in 1291. By 1426 it had been adopted by Middle French in the form of maxime with the feminine form being maximus meaning greatest. It would be a century and a half before acquired its present sense of a "a pithy expression of general truth.". A good synonym would be axiom or proverb; in literature it is known as a “greatest premise."
And look at that sap Percival who sits around mooning all the time. (Anne of Greene Gables)
As fall closed out the summer and school swung into session our neighbor had a sweet and delicate babe she named Lexi. She was a fiercely red headed girl, sprinkled generously with freckles and so I was over nearly every weekend to play with her. Her parents, Linda and Steve also had a seven year old son Derrick. He wasn’t very interested in Lexi, but I was besotted with her ocean blue eyes and light delicate fingers. Soon I was bathing, feeding and diapering her like a pro. Summer rolled around again and the Fegan’s decided to hire me as a babysitter. It was an elating offer for a young girl who was barely 12.
It was 10:30 PM and Lexi was already fast asleep. Derrick’s parents said he had to be in bed by 11. Hearing a noise, the dog started barking. I turned on the porch light, opened the front door and just as I stepped onto the porch, Derrick, slammed the door and locked it. He rolled around on the floor laughing for about 15 minutes. Derrick even mooned me! All this for two bucks an hour! What had been a real delight was now frazzling work and this is what Mark Twain was getting at in Chapter Two of Tom Sawyer with his maxim of work being whatever one has to do and play being whatever one doesn’t have to do.
Some day my boat will come in, and with my luck I'll be at the airport.
On a sunny summer morning Aunt Polly has assigned Tom to whitewash her fence. It’s a tall order for such a clever boy and in a dark and hopeless moment inspiration strikes in a way that only Mark Twain can create:
He took up his brush and went tranquilly to work. Ben Rogers hove in sight presently – the very boy, of all boys, whose ridicule he had been dreading. Ben’s gait was the hop-skip-and-jump – proof enough that his heart was light and his anticipations high. He was eating an apple, and giving a long, melodious whoop, at intervals, followed by a deep-toned ding-dong-dong, ding-dong-dong, for he was personating a steamboat. As he drew near, he slackened speed, took the middle of the street, leaned far over to star-board and rounded to ponderously and with laborious pomp and circumstance – for he was personating the Big Missouri, and considered himself to be drawing nine feet of water. He was boat and captain and engine-bells combined, so he had to imagine himself standing on his own hurricane-deck giving the orders and executing them:
“Stop her, sir! Ting-a-ling-ling!” The headway ran almost out, and he drew up slowly toward the sidewalk.
“Ship up to back! Ting-a-ling-ling!” His arms straightened and stiffened down his sides.
“Set her back on the stabboard! Ting-a-ling-ling! Chow! ch-chow-wow! Chow!” His right hand, meantime, describing stately circles – for it was representing a forty-foot wheel.
“Let her go back on the labboard! Ting-a-ling-ling! Chow-ch-chow-chow!” The left hand began to describe circles.
“Stop the stabboard! Ting-a-ling-ling! Stop the labboard! Come ahead on the stabboard! Stop her! Let your outside turn over slow! Ting-a-ling-ling! Chow-ow-ow! Get out that head-line! Lively now! Come – out with your spring-line – what’re you about there! Take a turn round that stump with the bight of it! Stand by that stage, now – let her go! Done with the engines, sir! Ting-a-ling-ling! Sh’t! s’h’t! sh’t!” (trying the gauge-cocks).
Tom went on whitewashing – paid no attention to the steamboat. Ben stared a moment and then said: “Hi- yi ! You’re up a stump, ain’t you!”
No answer. Tom surveyed his last touch with the eye of an artist, then he gave his brush another gentle sweep and surveyed the result, as before. Ben ranged up alongside of him. Tom’s mouth watered for the apple, but he stuck to his work. Ben said:
“Hello, old chap, you got to work, hey?”
Tom wheeled suddenly and said:
“Why, it’s you, Ben! I warn’t noticing.”
“Say – I’m going in a-swimming, I am. Don’t you wish you could? But of course you’d druther work – wouldn’t you? Course you would!”
Tom contemplated the boy a bit, and said:
“What do you call work?”
“Why, ain’t that work?”
Tom resumed his whitewashing, and answered carelessly:
“Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t. All I know, is, it suits Tom Sawyer.”
“Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”
The brush continued to move.
“Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”
That put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth – stepped back to note the effect – added a touch here and there – criticised the effect again – Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently he said:
“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”
Tom considered, was about to consent; but he altered his mind:
“No – no – I reckon it wouldn’t hardly do, Ben. You see, Aunt Polly’s awful particular about this fence – right here on the street, you know – but if it was the back fence I wouldn’t mind and she wouldn’t. Yes, she’s awful particular about this fence; it’s got to be done very careful; I reckon there ain’t one boy in a thousand, maybe two thousand, that can do it the way it’s got to be done.”
“No – is that so? Oh come, now – lemme, just try. Only just a little – I’d let you, if you was me, Tom.”
“Ben, I’d like to, honest injun; but Aunt Polly – well, Jim wanted to do it, but she wouldn’t let him; Sid wanted to do it, and she wouldn’t let Sid. Now don’t you see how I’m fixed? If you was to tackle this fence and anything was to happen to it – ”
“Oh, shucks, I’ll be just as careful. Now lemme try. Say – I’ll give you the core of my apple.”
“Well, here – No, Ben, now don’t. I’m afeard …”
“I’ll give you all of it!”
Tom gave up the brush with reluctance in his face, but alacrity in his heart. And while the late steamer Big Missouri worked and sweated in the sun, the retired artist sat on a barrel in the shade close by, dangled his legs, munched his apple, and planned the slaughter of more innocents. There was no lack of material; boys happened along every little while; they came to jeer, but remained to whitewash. By the time Ben was fagged out, Tom had traded the next chance to Billy Fisher for a kite, in good repair; and when he played out, Johnny Miller bought in for a dead rat and a string to swing it with – and so on, and so on, hour after hour. And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth. He had besides the things before mentioned, twelve marbles, part of a jews-harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool cannon, a key that wouldn’t unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collar – but no dog – the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated old window sash.
He had had a nice, good, idle time all the while – plenty of company – and the fence had three coats of whitewash on it! If he hadn’t run out of whitewash he would have bankrupted every boy in the village.
Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it – namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.
The boy mused awhile over the substantial change which had taken place in his worldly circumstances, and then wended toward headquarters to report.
I’m pretty sure Derrick had a bit of ole Tom Sawyer in him.
Online Etymology Dictionary:
Accessed October 26, 2006.
Public domain text from:
University of Virginia Library.
Accessed October 26, 2006.
The OED Online:
Accessed October 26, 2006.