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  • Paul Anthony Jones

Tom Swifty

(n.) a sentence in which a modifying adverb produces a pun

The term Tom Swifty popped up on HH last week:

As is often the case with fairly wordy definitions like that one, it’s easier to demonstrate precisely what that meaning entails with an example, and so we picked that brilliantly witty extract from Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend (1865). And it’s Mr Podsnap’s “very large”, and Dickens’ modifying “spaciously”, that’s the essence of a good Tom Swifty.

The name Tom Swifty derives from the popular and long-running series of Tom Swift adventure books (1910–) written by “Victor Appleton”—a pseudonym for any number of different authors who have contributed to the series over the last 100 years. The series was the brainchild of the New Jersey writer and publisher Edward Stratemeyer, whose book-packaging firm, the Stratemeyer Syndicate, was also responsible for the even more successful Hardy Boys (1927–) and Nancy Drew (1930–) series.

Remarkably, despite being a relatively little-known author himself, Stratemeyer’s books have since sold in excess of 500 million copies worldwide and he’s now credited with being one of the world’s most successful authors.

tom swift and his giant telescope cover

Just like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew stories after them, the Tom Swift series focused on a young sharp-minded teenager—in this case, a scientifically-minded inventor—whose adventures typically involved him outsmarting or escaping some nefarious villain. But it wasn’t the stories themselves that landed their eponymous hero a place in the dictionary, rather the quirky way in which Stratemeyer and his fellow “Appletons” told them: practically everything Tom says in the books is modified by an adverb.

“Find treasure? What do you mean?” asked Tom quickly.
“I wouldn't like to see that,” Tom said slowly.
“Yes, I think we're in for some excitement,” observed Tom grimly.
“Quick! Yes! Tell us!” demanded Tom eagerly.
“Oh, we'll dispose of him all right!” asserted Tom boldly.

It’s not clear whether it was the writers of the stories who noticed this trend first and ultimately started playing up to it themselves with punning adverbs, or whether the style was spotted elsewhere and satirized. Either way, by the mid 1960s the term Tom Swifty had come to refer to precisely this kind of play on words:

“I love camping,” exclaimed Tom intently.
“Let’s gather up the rope,” Tom said coyly.
“I can’t find the oranges,” Tom said fruitlessly.

And arguably best of all:

“I’ve dropped the toothpaste!” Tom said crestfallenly.

#wordplay #literature

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