Tom Swift and His Atomic Pun

June 13, 2009

English language geeks, among whose number I proudly count myself, have long been enamored of a weird and wonderful kind of pun known as a Tom Swiftie. This brand of humor draws its name from the Tom Swift novels, a series of boys’ books popular in the early and mid-twentieth century, the product of prolific children’s writer Edward Stratemeyer, who also penned (with a multiplicity of pseudonyms) the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books, as well as the earlier Bobbsey Twins and Rover Boys tales. Tom Swift was noted for the way he did or said things, with arcane adverbs describing his every move. Somewhere along the line, parodies began to pop up, with the adverb connected by pun to the body of the sentence, and the English language has never been the same. “Go to the back of the boat,” said Tom sternly. “Did I discover radium?” asked Marie curiously. “I dropped the toothpaste,” he said, crestfallen. You get the idea. There are also pseudo Tom Swifties in which there is no adverb, simply a verb that plays upon the action of the sentence: “I’m a plumber,” he piped.

My friend Steve Johnson found these immensely appealing, and offered: “You don’t bring me flowers anymore,” she said lackadaisically. To which I replied: “The prisoners are escaping over the wall,” the guard said condescendingly. And so the games began, and they have likely not ended, although my “‘Houston, we have a problem,’ he said apologetically” occasioned a card from Steve reading simply “Game/set/match”.

I have accumulated a list (see below), but it is only the tip of the iceberg (he said titanically), and clever additions will be welcomed and noted. (Note: some require more thinking than others…)

“We can’t have this and eat it too,” he said archaically.
“Elect Rick Lee,” his supporters cried electrically.
“We brought you gold and frankincense only,” he demurred.
“I used to command a battalion of German ants,” he said exuberantly.
“I accidentally pierced my cheek,” he said mysteriously.
“I’m Captain Hook,” he said offhandedly.
“Elvis has left the building,” he said expressly.
“Emily has put on weight,” he said emphatically.
“3.14159,” he said piously.
“Pete, Pete, Pete, Pete, Pete,” he said repeatedly.
“There must be something more than faith and charity,” he said hopefully.
“I have $100, who will give $200?” he asked morbidly.
“I cannot eat another cream puff,” he declared.
“I’ve changed my name to Al,” said Hal, exasperated.
“It’s half base,” he said half-assedly.
“I’m Jack the Ripper,” he said horrendously.
“He’s a really cool sailor,” she said hypnotically.
“This chicken has no beak,” he said impeccably.
“You should get it monogrammed,” he suggested initially.
“Why are you so close to me?” Adam asked naively.
“It’s subtraction,” he said, nonplussed.
“It’s 9:59,” he said pretentiously.
“I have only shampoo,” he said unconditionally.
“I’m headed for Scotland,” he said clandestinely.
“What’s the German word for ‘four’?” he asked fearlessly.
“Is your name Timothy or Russell?” he asked timorously.
“I manufacture horizontal kitchen surfaces,” he said counterproductively.
“Leprechauns never tell the truth,” he implied.
“I will name the first insect,” God said adamantly.

And finally, a particular anti-favorite of mine: “I hate adverbs,” said Tom.

As you can see, like parsley, sage and rosemary, these are simply thymeless.