What is a Tom Swifty?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsMore than a century ago, Edward Stratemeyer, the founder of a book-packaging company, created the character of Tom Swift.  Stratemeyer wrote under the pseudonym of Victor Appleton. The very popular adventures of Tom Swift appeared in a series of books (40 volumes), published from 1910 to 1941. The protagonist, Tom Swift, is portrayed as a hero and scientific genius (modeled after famous inventors of the time — Thomas Edison and Henry Ford). In some ways, Swift was the early 20th-century version of Jimmy Newtron, or a Tesla for teens. Many of Swift’s inventions, like a fax machine,  hand-held movie camera and taser, predated the actual invention by several decades. In fact the word TASER is an acronym of “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.” The Tom Swift canon influenced many notable science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Ray Kurzweil. Over the several decades, different writers have continued writing Tom Swift adventures for new generations of children. As of 2009, the Tom Swift book series has sold more than 30 million books (compare that to the Hardy Boys series, another successful Stratemeyer creation, that has sold more than 70 million books since 1927).

Another impact of the Tom Swift books was the rise of a clever word game. Stratemeyer, and the writers that followed him, tended to over-use adverbs to modify the verb “said.” For example, “Let’s run to the field,” said Tom excitedly or “Hand me the keys!” Tom said emphatically. A popular word game that began in the 1950’s was the adverbial pun, a type of Wellerism (introduced by Charles Dickens’ character Sam Weller in The Pickwick Papers), to satirize Statemeyer’s overused sentence construction. This type of sentence became known as a “Tom Swifty.” For example, “I can’t find the box of oranges,” said Tom fruitlessly or “Put that knife down,” said Tom sharply. Below are some examples of Tom Swifties:

“My favorite authors are Slaughter and Hemingway,” Tom said frankly and earnestly.

“The lemon is too sour,” Tom said bitterly.

“Welcome to my tomb,” said Tom cryptically.

“I can’t find the oranges,” said Tom fruitlessly.

“Don’t you love sleeping outdoors,” Tom said intently.

“Let’s trap that sick bird,” Tom said illegally.

“I lost my trousers,” said Tom expansively.

“Don’t try to pull the wool over my eyes,” Tom said sheepishly.

“I just dropped the toothpaste,” said Tom crestfallenly.

“This tooth extraction could take forever,” said Tom with infinite wisdom.

“Watch what you’re doing with that paddle,” said Tom, awestruck.

“That doesn’t add up,” said Tom nonplussed.

“I can’t think of anything to write,” Tom said blankly.

“Elvis is dead,” said Tom expressly.

“I’ve eaten too much white sauce,” said Tom ruefully.

“This may be the worst case of dry rot I’ve ever seen,” said Tom flawlessly.

“They had to amputate them both at the ankles,” said Tom defeatedly.

“Hurry up and get to the back of the ship!” Tom said sternly.

“I love explosions,” Tom boomed.

“Happy Birthday,” Tom said presently.

“There’s room for one more,” Tom admitted.

“Walk this way,” Tom said stridently.

“Bingo,” Tom exclaimed winningly.

“I didn’t see the steamroller coming,” said Tom flatly.

“You ever seen one this big?” Tom bragged cockily.

“Where did all the carpet on the steps go?” asked Tom with a blank stare.

“I have no flowers,” Tom said lackadaisically.

“I know not which groceries to purchase,” Tom said listlessly.

“It’s a unit of electric current,” said Tom amply.

“I’d like my money back, and some,” said Tom with interest.

“I have a delivery of shoes for the prisoners,” said Tom consolingly.

“This pizza place is great!” Tom exclaimed saucily.

“Let’s gather up the rope,” said Tom coyly.

“Who left the toilet seat down?” Tom asked peevishly.

“Pass me the shellfish,” said Tom crabbily.

“I’m the butcher’s assistant,” Tom said cuttingly.

“I unclogged the drain with a vacuum cleaner,” said Tom succinctly.

“We just struck oil!” Tom gushingly.

“Now I can do some painting,” Tom said easily.

“It’s freezing,” Tom muttered icily.

“I love hot dogs,” said Tom with relish.

“My therapist told me I suffer from multiple personality disorder,” said Tom, being frank.

“Pardon my flatulence,” said Tom astutely.

“If you want me, I shall be in the attic,” Tom said, loftily

“We’re going to see Riverdance, and that’s final,” said Tom, flatly.

“Follow that group of ships!” Tom said fleetingly.

“How many lambs do you have on your farm?” Tom asked sheepishly.

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