Thinking About Words II
Bill Long 5/24/06
Wellerisms and Tom Swifties
I will continue my digression on amusing words by focusing on one device of relatively recent origin which is easier to spot (and invent) than malapropisms or spoonerisms. But in order to understand the Tom Swifty, we must first take a trip into the world of Wellerisms.
The word first appeared in 1839, according to the OED, and is "a speech or expression employed by, or typical of Sam Weller or his father, two celebrated characters in Dickens's Pickwick Papers" (1836-37). For example in that work we have, "Out with it, as the father said to the child when he swallowed a farden [farthing]." In this device a familiar saying or proverb is identified, often punningly, with what was said by someone in a specified but humorously inapposite situation. It comprises three parts: the statement, the speaker and the situation. But as with most of these devices, the fun begins when we get some examples. Here are four, the first of which comes from the nineteenth century, which, I am convinced, had a different notion of humor than we do today.
1. "Everyone to his own taste," said the woman as she kissed the cow.
Better, however is this one.
2. "We'll have to rehearse that," said the undertaker as the coffin fell out of the car."
Perhaps the most common is:
3. "I see," said the blind man.
My favorite Wellerism, at least at this writing, is:
4. "It all comes back to me now," said the Captain as he spat into the wind.
These are statements named after the protagonist of a series of adventure/discovery stories for boys which were written by Edward L. Stratemeyer (1862-1930). In his prime Stratemeyer was responsible not only for Tom Swift stories, but also for the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy Mysteries. I say "responsible for," because he actually developed a writers' syndicate which poured out volume after volume based on Stratemeyer's three-page plot he gave the writers. These books began to be produced in earnest in the early days of the 20th century, and filled a niche not only in cost (costing a bit more than dime novels but much less than elegant Dickensian works) but in ideology. In these books, Stratemeyer eschewed both the moralism of older fiction (reading for self-improvement and affirmation of moralistic or religious values) as well as the "frontier-type adventurism" of the post-Civil War literature. In fact, America was "settling in" to urban and suburban life, and Stratemeyer wanted to present to younger readers the exciting lives and adventures of other (fictional) boys and girls not much older than they were. In addition, with the advent of compulsory education through eighth grade, American youth were becoming equipped to be readers. More on this fascinating movement and person can be found in this 2004 New Yorker article.
The concept of the Tom Swify developed as a result of Stratemeyer's editorial style. When the farmed-out ideas came back to him as books from his stable of writers, he would change the word "said" to "asserted" or "asseverated" or "declared" or "observed" or a dozen other similar words. Tom Swift, therefore, who was swift in action as in name, would always be observing or declaring or musing but rarely "saying" anything. As a take-off on that method of editing, a Tom Swiftie actually returns to the more prosaic use of the verb ("said") but then adds an adverb that relates to the content of what is said but does so in a humorous fashion. Here are about a dozen or so of them, some of which I made up, but many of which are derived from good and ever burgeoning online lists. Oh, you will notice that # 3 is not a Tom Swifty in its "pure" form since the verb fully captures the idea in the quotation. But what is purity of language, anyway?
1. "I can't see a think in this cave," Tom said darkly.
2. "You erased my entire essay," Tom said blankly.
3. "I'm dying," she croaked.
4. "I like modern painting," he said abstractly.
5. "Fire!" yelled Tom alarmingly.
6. "Orgasms are overrated," he said anticlimactically.
7. "Would you tell the story of the Liberty Bell to me again?" the child asked appealingly.
8. "I always eat at McDonalds," he said archly.
9. "I just swallowed the fishing lure," he said with baited breath.
10. "It's freezing!" he said bitterly.
11. "I think I have ants in my pants," he said briefly.
12. "Zoos are a necessary evil," the director said cagily.
13. "Rowing so much hurts my hands," the sculler said callously.
14. "No, I haven't read Voltaire," he said candidly.
And then, one I recall from my youth was when my older brother Rick was given a 7th grade English assignment to come up with some Tom Swifties. He thought of the following, and I dedicate it in his honor:
"Don't lean back on your chair," the teacher said skullsmashingly.
No wonder Rick never made it in the world of literature. But he has been a success in business...
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long