Heard of Tom Swifties? Here are some hilarious puns you must know

There is a particular genre of puns that has acquired a name of its own.

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 8 Dec 2022, 5:04 PM

In an August column, we discussed puns, which involve a play on words for humorous effect. But there is a particular genre of puns that has acquired a name of its own. A “Tom Swifty” is a phrase in which a pun is used in reporting speech. The name comes from an American boys’ fiction genre, the Tom Swift series of books, which were similar to the Hardy Boys series of children’s adventure stories. The author went to great lengths to avoid the standard formula “he said” or “said Tom” when reporting something the characters uttered, tossing in an adverb to embellish the routine word “said”. So instead of the typical “‘We must find out who did this,’ said Tom”, the author would write, “‘We must find out who did this,’ Tom muttered desperately.”

Since adverbs were excessively attached to dialogue in the stories, to avoid repetition, impart colourful variety to the narrative and teach the books’ young readers new words, this was widely noticed as a distinctive feature of the Tom Swift books. Jokes inevitably began to be made about this style, as in “‘We must hurry,’ said Tom Swiftly.” The adverb, in other words, contains the pun. “Pass me the shellfish,” said Tom crabbily. “We just struck oil!” Tom gushed. “I’d like my money back, and then some,” said Tom with interest. “The thermostat is set too high,” complained Tom heatedly. “I love hot dogs,” exclaimed Tom with relish.

Get it? In the examples above, “swiftly” relates to “hurry”, a crab is a shellfish, when you strike oil it gushes from the ground, a loan of money must usually be repaid with interest, thermostats regulate room temperature and hot dogs taste better with relish. The adverbial pun makes a routine statement cleverer and, therefore, more amusing.

The more complicated the pun, the funnier the allusion is. Thus “I forgot what I needed at the store,” Tom confessed listlessly. “Get to the back of the ship!” Tom said sternly. Not having a shopping list when you arrive at the store is not the same as being listless, and to appreciate “sternly” you need to know the word stern also means the back of a ship, as well as a person’s strict manner. Such double meanings make the joke more enjoyable.

So “‘I dropped my toothpaste’, a crestfallen Tom said” is an allusion to Crest toothpaste, which would make no sense if you were not familiar with the brand. “‘I enjoy painting’,” Tom said easily” requires you to know that painters’ canvases rest on an easel. To smile at “‘I decided to come back to the group’ was Tom’s rejoinder” you need to understand that a rejoinder is a reply, but someone who exits a group and joins again can be said to have re-joined. Synonyms are grist to the mill of Tom Swiftys: “If you want me, I shall be in the attic,” Tom said, loftily. “I need a towel,” said Tom dryly. “Pass me another chip,” demanded Tom crisply. “I can’t find the apples,” said Tom fruitlessly.

Occasionally, the pun benefits from using adverbs which sound the same as the word being alluded to but are spelled differently. “Let’s gather up the rope,” said Tom coyly. A “coil” of rope has nothing to do with “coyness”, which is where the humour lies. “I’d like to stop by the mausoleum,” Tom suggested cryptically. Mausoleums contains crypts, but being cryptic has no relation to the crypts you find in tombs. “‘My windows were broken in the storm,’ Tom wept, pained.” (Windows have panes, people have pain).

Sometimes the puns are simple: “Unlike you, I love dogs,” Tom barked. “The eclipse is starting,” Tom observed darkly. “Who was in the sauna with you while I was away?” she asked Tom hotly. Sometimes they require a little more figuring out: “‘I lost my trousers,’ said Tom expansively.” (If he had no pants, he was ex-pants, therefore “expansively”!) Even more complicated is “‘I just rushed past my father,’ Tom said transparently”. Even in the US, where they originated, Tom Swiftys (Swifties?) appear to have fallen into disuse. It’s time we revived them. Try and invent some of your own: “They’ll be a fun diversion,” Tom said distractedly.


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