No, Tom Swift is not a person. A Tom Swifty is a phrase in which a quoted sentence is linked by a pun to the manner in which it is attributed. The standard syntax is for the quoted sentence to be first, followed by the (humorous) description of the act of speaking. The hypothetical speaker is usually, by convention, called “Tom.”

Examples

Perhaps a few examples will help illustrate what Tom Swifties are all about, courtesy of Wikipedia and Fun With Words, which have hundreds more of these (and remember, the best puns always come with a groan).

  • “I need a pencil sharpener,” said Tom bluntly.
  • “Oops! There goes my hat!” said Tom off the top of his head.
  • “I have a split personality,” said Tom, being frank.
  • “This must be an aerobics class,” Tom worked out.
  • “I only have diamonds, clubs, and spades,” said Tom heartlessly.
  • “Don’t add too much water,” said Tom with great concentration.
  • “It’s not fair!” said Tom darkly.
  • “This salad dressing has too much vinegar,” said Tom acidly.
  • “That dog has kept me up all night,” Tom barked.
  • “I think I’ll use a different font,” said Tom boldly.
  • “I still haven’t struck oil,” said Tom boringly.
  • “This is mutiny!” said Tom bountifully.
  • “Rowing hurts my hands,” said Tom callously.
  • “I don’t work here on a regular basis,” said Tom casually.
  • “It’s twelve noon,” Tom chimed in.
  • “I dropped the toothpaste,” said Tom, crestfallen.
  • “I’d like to stop by the mausoleum,” Tom said cryptically.
  • “Pass me the shellfish,” said Tom crabbily.
  • “We just struck oil!” Tom gushed.
  • “Get to the back of the ship!” Tom said sternly.
  • “I’d like my money back, and some,” said Tom with interest.
  • “If you want me, I shall be in the attic,” Tom said, loftily.
  • “I’ll have another martini,” said Tom dryly.
  • “Pass me another chip” said Tom crisply.
  • “The doctor had to remove my left ventricle,” said Tom half-heartedly.
  • “Your Honour, you’re crazy!” said Tom judgementally.
  • “I love hot dogs,” said Tom with relish.

And my personal favorite:

“Don’t let me drown in Egypt!” pleaded Tom, deep in denial. (get it? De-Nile? Oh, come on, this one’s so bad it’s great!)

Who was Tom Swift?

Tom Swift megapack | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's booksAs Wikipedia explains, the name comes from the Tom Swift series of books (1910–present), similar in many ways to the better-known Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series, and, like them, produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate.

In this series, a young scientist hero called Tom Swift undergoes adventures involving rocket ships, ray-guns, and other things he has invented.

American writer Edward L. Stratemeyer, writing under the pseudonym of “Victor Appleton,” went to great trouble to avoid repetition of the simple word “said.” Instead, he uses a different verb and an adverb in an effort to adorn his writing. Tom Swift rarely passed a remark without a qualifying adverb as “Tom added eagerly” or “Tom said jokingly.”

This excerpt (with emphasis added) from the 1910 novel Tom Swift and His Airship illustrates the style:

“Oh, I’m not a professor,” he said quickly. “I’m a professional balloonist, parachute jumper. Give exhibitions at county fairs. Leap for life, and all that sort of thing. I guess you mean my friend. He’s smart enough for a professor. Invented a lot of things. How much is the damage?”

“No professor?” cried Miss Perkman indignantly. “Why I understood from Miss Nestor that she called some one professor.”

“I was referring to my friend, Mr. Swift,” said Mary. “His father’s a professor, anyhow, isn’t he, Tom? I mean Mr. Swift!”

“I believe he has a degree, but he never uses it,” was the lad’s answer.

“Ha! Then I have been deceived! There is no professor present!” and the old maid drew herself up as though desirous of punishing some one. “Young ladies, for the last time, I order you to your rooms,” and, with a dramatic gesture she pointed to the scuttle through which the procession had come.

“Say something, Tom — I mean Mr. Swift,” appealed Mary Nestor, in a whisper, to our hero. “Can’t you give some sort of a lecture? The girls are just crazy to hear about the airship, and this ogress won’t let us. Say something!”

“I — I don’t know what to say,” stammered Tom.

The Tom Swiftly is a parody of this style with the incorporation of a pun, the archetypal example being “‘We must hurry,’ said Tom Swiftly.”

At some point, people started calling this kind of humor a Tom Swifty, and that name is now more prevalent.

The term was coined by Willard Espy (1911–99), one of the masters of wordplay, who compiled two wonderful collections of poems, essays, quizzes, and other writings about language: An Almanac of Words at Play (1975) and Another Almanac of Words at Play (1980).

Traditionally, Tom is the speaker, but this is by no means necessary for the pun to classify as a Tom Swifty. Sometimes the pun lies in the name, in which case it will usually not be Tom speaking:

“Who discovered radium?” asked Marie curiously.

A kind of Wellerism

Tom Swifties are considered a relatively recent development of Wellerism.

Wellerisms take their name from Sam Weller in Charles Dickens’ “Pickwick Papers” (1836-7), a character prone to producing punning sentences such as this:

“Out with it, as the father said to the child when he swallowed a farden [farthing].”

This type of verbal play, involving a metaphorical and a punningly literal sense, soon gained popularity under the name of wellerism, and a craze for devising such expressions rapidly sprang up on both sides of the Atlantic.

A crude example familiar to children is this:

“I see, said the blind man, when he couldn’t see at all.”

How about you? Have you ever used Tom Swifties in your work? Are you planning to, now that you’re more aware of them?

 

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