Dec 24, 2008

"Tom Swifties" - a development in Wellerism.

Wellerism is an expression of comparison comprising a usually well-known quotation followed by a facetious sequel. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines Wellerism thusly:

Sam Weller in Charles Dickens' "Pickwick Papers" (1836-7) was prone to producing punning sentences such as:

'Out with it, as the father said to the child when he swallowed a farden [farthing]'.

This type of verbal play, involving a metaphorical and a punningly literal sense, soon gained popularity under the name of wellerism, and a craze for devising such expressions rapidly sprang up on both sides of the Atlantic. A crude example familiar to children is:

'I see, said the blind man, when he couldn't see at all.'


"'It all comes back to me now', said the Captain as he spat into the wind."


Tom Swifty :
A Tom Swifty is a Wellerism in which an adverb relates both properly and punningly to a sentence of reported speech. For example:
"The doctor had to remove my left ventricle," said Tom half-heartedly.
explaination: half-heartedly = half of a heart. [A heart is composed of a left and right ventricle] Hence the above sentence is a "Tom Swifty".
"Your Honour, you're crazy!" said Tom judgementally.
explaination: judge (= your honour) + mental (= crazy) + ly.


Etymology of Tom Swifty:
The quip takes its name from Tom Swift, a boy's adventure hero created by the prolific American writer Edward L. Stratemeyer. Under the pseudonym Victor Appleton, he published a series of books featuring the young Tom Swift. Tom Swift rarely passed a remark without a qualifying adverb as "Tom added eagerly" or "Tom said jokingly". The play on words discussed here arose as a pastiche of this, coming to be known by the term Tom Swifty.


In a true Tom Swifty, it is an adverb (word specifying the mode of action of the verb) that provides the pun, as in the following example:
"I swallowed some of the glass from that broken window," Tom said painfully.
explaination: pain (like 'pane' = window glass) + full (= full stomach) + y.


But frequently the pun occurs in the verb, and there may not be an adverb at all. Strictly speaking such puns are not Tom Swifties, but they are generally included in the term. For example:
"My garden needs another layer of mulch," Tom repeated.
explaination: re (= again / another) + peat (= mulch) + ed.


And sometimes it is neither a verb, nor an adverb, but a short phrase (usually acting like an adverb in modifying the verb) For example:
"I've only enough carpet for the hall and landing," said Tom with a blank stare.
explaination: blank (= uncovered) + stare (like 'stair' = staircase).


Traditionally Tom is the speaker, but this is by no means necessary for the pun to classify as a Tom Swifty. Sometimes the pun lies in the name, in which case it will usually not be Tom speaking. For example:
"I'm going to end it all," Sue sighed.
explaination: Sue sighed (like 'suicide' = to kill oneself).


Many – probably most – Tom Swifties are morphological; i.e. the words must be broken down into morphemes (smaller components) to understand the pun. This is true for many of the examples on this page, and is illustrated particularly well by this example :
"This is the real male goose," said Tom producing the propaganda.
explaination: propa (like 'proper' = real) + ganda (like 'gander' = male goose).


Often the adverb (or whatever) has a homonym (a word which is pronounced, and perhaps spelled, the same, but has a different meaning) which leads to the punning meaning of the sentence. For example :
"I have a split personality," said Tom, being frank.
explaination: frank (= open, man's name).

Dec 24, 2008 - Wise Words For the Day

Empty-handed I entered the world
barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going-
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.
-- Kozan Ichikyo.


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  3. Thank you. Do drop in often. :-))