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Tom Swifties

Last Update: October 7, 2007

Edward L. Stratemeyer (1862-1930), writing as Victor Appleton, invented Tom Swift, an ingenious young man whose amazing scientific inventions and discoveries would carry him to weird and wonderful places. Edward worked hard to have Tom never simply say anything. He he asserted, asseverated, averred, chuckled, declared, ejaculated, expostulated, grinned (plainly or mischievously), groaned, quipped, or smiled.

The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, has this definition:

Tom Swiftie, a play on words that follows an unvarying pattern and relies for its humor on a punning relationship between the way an adverb describes a speaker and at the same time refers significantly to the import of the speaker's statement, as in "I know who turned off the lights," Tom hinted darkly.

A correspondent writes that "the Tom Swifty is really Tom Swiftly, as in 'said Tom Swiftly.'" The writer was Jim Wegryn, who has the Tom Swiftlies page. "The adverbial 'ly' is the key. Calling them Swifties makes no sense. Your example, 'Tom hinted darkly' would have to be 'Tom hinted darky.'"

Logically, Jim may well be right. But I replied to him this way:

Google returns the following hit counts:

"Tom Swifties": 26,600

"Tom Swifty": 12,100

"Tom Swiftie": 21,20

"Tom Swiftly": 769

"Tom Swiftlies": 107

In questions of this sort, the dictionary rule that I follow is descriptive rather than prescriptive. So see, for example, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dictionary.

There is no better way to see the way that we actually writing than a Google search. So I will stick with "Tom Swifties." It doesn't mean that this form is right, only that it is the usual form.

There are literally thousands of Tom Swifties. Some of my favorites are:

  • "Blast it! I dropped my toothpaste again," Tom said, crestfallen.

  • "I can't believe I ate that whole pineapple!" Tom said, Dolefully.

  • "That's the last time I'll ever pet a lion," Tom said, offhandedly.

  • "I'll never sleep on the railroad tracks again!" Tom said, beside himself.

  • "That's the third electric shock I've gotten this week!" Tom said, revolted.

  • "I'm never anywhere on time," Tom related.

  • "I won't let a flat tire get me down," Tom said, without despair.

  • "That car you sold me has defective steering!" Tom said, straightforwardly.

  • "I've been on a diet," Tom expounded.

  • "I'll have to send that telegram again," Tom said, remorsefully.

  • "I keep banging my head on things," Tom said, bashfully.

  • "Look at that jailbird climb down that wall," Tom observed with condescension.

  • "I remember the Midwest being flatter than this," Tom explained.

  • "That's the third time my teacher changed my grade," Tom remarked.

  • "I'll have to dig another ditch around that castle," Tom sighed, remotely.

  • "I've lived through a lot of windstorms," Tom regaled.

  • "I haven't caught a fish all day!" Tom said, without debate.

  • "That mink coat is on wrong side out," Tom inferred.


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