Words & Stuff

S: Tom Said

(9 November 1997)

Willard Espy didn't bother to define Tom Swifties in his Almanac(s) of Words at Play; perhaps he felt everyone knew what they were. I'm sure that there are some people who haven't encountered them, though, so I'll start with a quick definition. A Tom Swifty is a pun of this form:

"I never get blisters; why should I care if you do?" Tom said callously.

The idea being that the adverb modifying "said" is a pun that has something to do with what Tom said. The form is supposedly named after the character of Tom Swift, from four long-running series of boys'-adventure/science-fiction novels by "Victor Appleton" (a pen name used by several writers of the Stratemeyer Syndicate), but I've seen no evidence that this sort of pun had anything to do with the character.

Espy does define a "croaker"; it's a Tom Swifty in which the punning word is a speaking verb, rather than an adverb with "said." He credits the name and the concept to Roy Bongartz and friends. The name derives from an archetypal croaker:

"I'm dying," he croaked.

I'll grant the name, but the concept seems to me an obvious extension of the Tom Swifty concept, and I don't know anyone who differentiates between the two; most people consider both kinds of items, along with several variant forms, to be Tom Swifties.

Jim Moskowitz, Ruth Alfasso, and Gavin Schnitzler came up with these:

These ones are entirely Jim's fault:

One from Bhadrika:

"I'm human again," he said disenchantedly.

One from Mykle Hansen:

"I guess I'll have to have an operation," said Tom half-heartedly.

One from Michael Bernstein:

"I don't know where this train is going!" Tom railed.

Here are a bunch more, mostly created by Jonathan Wald, with a few by me.

...And just in case you haven't had enough yet, there's a huge Web site (by Michael Curl) full of lots and lots more.

Reader comments and addenda page

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>