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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, the young scientist hero underwent adventures involving rocket ships, ray-guns and other things he had invented.
A stylistic idiosyncrasy of at least some books in this series was that the author, "Victor Appleton," went to great trouble to avoid repetition of the unadorned word "said", using a different quotative verb, or modifying adverbial words or phrases in a kind of elegant variation. Since many adverbs end in "ly" this kind of pun was originally called a Tom Swiftly, the archetypal example being "'We must hurry,' said Tom Swiftly." At some point, this kind of humor was called a Tom Swifty, and that name is now more prevalent.
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 Swifty, then, is a parody of this style with the incorporation of a pun.
A much earlier example may be found, for example, in Dickens' Our Mutual Friend:
- "How Do You Like London?" Mr Podsnap now inquired from his station of host, as if he were administering something in the nature of a powder or potion to the deaf child; "London, Londres, London?"
- The foreign gentleman admired it.
- "You find it Very Large?" said Mr. Podsnap, spaciously.
- "I'd like to stop by the mausoleum," Tom said cryptically.
- "Pass me the shellfish," said Tom crabbily.
- "I might as well be dead," Tom croaked.
- "We just struck oil!" Tom gushed.
- "It's freezing," Tom muttered icily.
- "Hurry up and get to the back of the ship!" Tom said sternly.
- "Bingo," Tom exclaimed winningly.
- "I have no flowers," Tom said lackadaisically.
- "I know not which groceries to purchase," Tom said listlessly.
- "I'd like my money back, and some," said Tom with interest.
- "I decided to come back to the group," Tom rejoined.
- "This pizza place is great!" Tom exclaimed saucily.
- "I dropped my toothpaste," Tom said, crestfallen.
- "I love hot dogs," said Tom with relish.
- "The exit is right there," Tom pointed out.
- "If you want me, I shall be in the attic," Tom said, loftily.
- "We must follow that group of ships!" Tom said fleetingly.
- "How many lambs are on your farm?" Tom asked sheepishly.
- "What our team needs is a home run hitter," Tom said ruthlessly.
- "I took a lot of pictures of people when they weren’t looking", Tom said candidly.
- "I'd have gotten an A on the paper, but I got knocked down a grade for not turning it in on time", Tom said belatedly.
- "Seriously, the rest of you are singing off-key", Tom remarked sharply.
- "Temperature's up," Tom said warmly.
- "I don't care what you said before. I still think I'm bulimic," Tom said, bringing it up again.
- "Dad's sex change operation went well," Tom said transparently.
Tom Swifties can be conveniently converted to limericks. An example of this by O.V. Michaelsen (Ove Ofteness):
- Tom Swift, he was miffed. Oh, and how, / And admits having fits, even NOW. / “Don’t lend me more yarn— / I can’t mend worth a darn, / But won't quit," he said, knitting his brow.
The standard syntax is for the quoted sentence to be first, followed by the description of the act of speaking. The hypothetical speaker is usually, by convention, called "Tom" (or "he" or "she"), unless some other name is needed for the pun (as in the Marie Curie and Lord Nelson examples above).
Tom Swifties first came to prominence in the United States with the 1963 publication of the book Tom Swifties by Paul Pease and Bill McDonough. The spread of Tom Swifties was abetted by an article in the May 31, 1963 edition of Time magazine, which also announced a contest for its readers to submit their own Tom Swifties. Included was a special category, "Time Swifties," which were to contain a reference to Time magazine however, only a few submissions were made of this nature. Among the submissions that were subsequently printed was "Someone has stolen my movie camera!" Tom bellowed and howled.
The Time contest caused the popularity of Tom Swifties to grow, for a period of some years. Tom Swifties found a large teenage audience on the joke column on the last page of each month's issue of Boys' Life, the magazine for Boy Scouts.
- Lundin, Leigh (2011-11-20). "Wellerness". Wellerisms and Tom Swifties. Orlando: SleuthSayers.
- Leavitt, Scot (May 31, 1963). "I've Come Back, Called Tom Swiftly". Life Magazine. p. 19. Retrieved July 31, 2014.
- "A Letter From The Publisher: Jun. 21, 1963". Time. June 21, 1963.
- "The Museum of Curiosity: Series 10: Episode 3". BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 25 January 2017.
- Thomas Jackson Rice (1996). "The (Tom) Swiftean Culture of 'Scylla and Charybdis'". In R. Brandon Kershner. Joyce and Popular Culture. University Press of Florida. pp. 116&ndash, 117. ISBN 0-8130-1396-8.
- Litokina, Anna T. (2014). " "I see," said Tom icily: Tom Swifties at the beginning of the 21st century". European Journal of Humour Research 2.2:54-67. Web access