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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"; elegant variation used a different quotative verb, or modifying adverbial words or phrases. 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'll have a martini," said Tom, drily (dryly).
- "Who left the toilet seat down?" Tom asked peevishly.
- "Pass me the shellfish," said Tom crabbily.
- "That's the last time I'll stick my arm in a lion's mouth," the lion-tamer said off-handedly.
- "Can I go looking for the Grail again?" Tom requested.
- "I unclogged the drain with a vacuum cleaner," said Tom succinctly.
- "I might as well be dead," Tom croaked.
- "We just struck oil!" Tom gushed.
- "It's freezing," Tom muttered icily.
- "They had to amputate them both at the ankles," said Tom defeatedly.
- "I wonder if this radium is radioactive?" asked Marie curiously.
- "The Battle of the Nile? A lot of fun!" said Lord Nelson disarmingly.
- "Hurry up and get to the back of the ship!" Tom said sternly.
- "We could have made a fortune canning pineapples," Tom groaned dolefully.
- "I wish I drove a Scandinavian car," Tom sobbed (Saabed).
- "Careful with that chainsaw," Tom said offhandedly.
- "I'm here," Tom said presently.
- "Happy Birthday," Tom said presently.
- "Walk this way," Tom said stridently.
- "I stole the gold," Tom confessed guiltily (giltily).
- "Bingo," Tom exclaimed winningly.
- "Where did all the carpet on the steps go?" asked Tom with a blank stare (stair).
- "I used to be a criminal pilot," he ex-plained con-descendingly.
- "I have no flowers," Tom said lackadaisically.
- "I know not which groceries to purchase," Tom said listlessly.
- "I decided to come back to the group," Tom rejoined.
- "Did you say to zip up my sleeping bag or the door?" Tom asked inattentively.
- "This pizza place is great!" Tom exclaimed saucily.
- "I dropped my toothpaste," Tom said crestfallenly.
Tom Swifties can be conveniently converted to limericks. Two examples of this (by O.V. Michaelsen):
- A frustrated friend, Thomas Dow, / Lost his wits, having fits even now. / “Don’t lend me more yarn— / I can’t mend worth a darn,” / Said Tom, as he knitted his brow.
- “I borrowed a punchline,” said Clyde. / “When I claimed to be honest, I lied. / An amusing tom-swiftie / Is one of out fifty. / ‘I gave up on living,’ Sue sighed.”
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.
- 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. 116–117. ISBN 0-8130-1396-8.