Q. I’ve been reading Tom Sawyer with my children, and we’ve come across a word that has us stymied: maow. Was that a slang term in Mark Twain’s day?
Amy/Suttons Bay, MI
A. Actually, it’s a case of imitative spelling. Let’s take a fast look at the word in context:
The night promised to be a fair one; so Tom went home with the understanding that if a considerable degree of darkness came on, Huck was to come and "maow," whereupon he would slip out and try the keys. [Ch. XXVIII]
All you got to do is to trot up Hooper Street a block and maow -- and if I'm asleep, you throw some gravel at the window and that'll fetch me." [Ch. XXVIII]
"Well, if I don't want you in the daytime, I'll let you sleep. I won't come bothering around. Any time you see something's up, in the night, just skip right around and maow." [Ch. XXVIII]
Tom's excitement enabled him to keep awake until a pretty late hour, and he had good hopes of hearing Huck's "maow," and of having his treasure to astonish Becky and the picnickers with, next day; but he was disappointed. No signal came that night. [Ch. XXIX]
So "maow" is a vocal signal worked out by the boys. It’s an imitation of the sound that a cat would make, the kind of sound that wouldn't alarm a casual listener or betray the boys’ presence. In our day, we're more likely to spell it meow.
Sidebar: All about the sounds cats make
(substitute @ for AT above)