What is a Tom Swifty?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

A Tom Swifty is a particular type of pun, or play on words, most of which depend on a set of homophones, different words that sound the same. A Tom Swifty is told or written as a one-line joke. Unlike a riddle, it doesn’t have a question and answer: the teller just waits for the listener to figure out the joke.

The name of the Tom Swifty comes from the books about a series of boy’s adventure book with a hero called Tom Swift. The authorship is actually attributable to a group of several writers who used the pseudonyms Victor Appleton and Victor Appleton, Jr., and who were prone to use a wide variety of adverbs to characterize the speech of the characters, inspiring the invention of the wordplay. The pun called a Tom Swifty was not, however, actually used in the series.

There are a variety of types of wordplay that use puns, but the Tom Swifty usually uses a pun in a special way. Part of the pun always appears in the words that Tom Swifty says, while the other part usually appears in an adverb that describes how Tom Swifty speaks. Variations include having someone besides Tom speak and making a pun with the new speaker’s name or using a synonym for “said,” which creates the pun.

Here are some examples of Tom Swifties with explanations of how the puns work:

“I gotta admit: I love hot dogs,” said Tom frankly.

Frank and hot dog are synonyms, while frankly also means forthrightly, and is an appropriate adverb for the confessional tone of Tom’s statement in this Tom Swifty.

“I’ve been to every store in the neighborhood and no one has bananas,” said Tom fruitlessly.

Tom’s search has been fruitless in that it has accomplished nothing and fruit-less in that he could not find the particular type of fruit that he was seeking.

“I’m dying,” Tom croaked.

This is an example of one of the variations: there is no adverb, and the pun is in the synonym for “said.” The synonym is chosen both because croak is a synonym for die, and because Tom is losing his voice as well as his life, so the description of how he speaks is apt for the situation he describes himself as being in.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments

anon130768

I think the power is out, Tom stated darkly.

anon27409

another riddle could be "This poison ivy is really itchy", exclaimed tom rashly.

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