Vocab

Friday - - Mind Games -

Fun with Tom Swifties Ever won­dered about the etymology of the word ‘taser’, the elec­troshock ‘stun gun’ em­ployed by po­lice of­fi­cers to sub­due bel­liger­ent or flee­ing perps? Prob­a­bly not, but here it is any­way: it’s an acro­nym for ‘Thomas A Swift’s Elec­tric Ri­fle’, Tom Swift be­ing a childhood literary hero of the taser in­ven­tor, Jack Cover.

And thereby hangs a tale – and to­day’s col­umn. The orig­i­nal Tom Swift was a sci­en­tific ge­nius cre­ated by Ed­ward Strate­meyer. Part of the charm of th­ese pop­u­lar chil­dren’s sci-fi/ad­ven­ture books is that Tom and his friends and en­e­mies don’t al­ways just ‘say’ some­thing. They say some­thing ‘ex­cit­edly’, ‘sadly’, ‘hur­riedly’, or ‘grimly’. That was enough to in­spire the game called Tom Swifties.

The ob­ject is to match the ad­verb with the quo­ta­tion to pro­duce, in each case, a high-fly­ing pun, such as ‘Have a ride in my am­bu­lance, said Tom hos­pitably’. Richard Led­erer of Cal­i­for­nia col­lected (or coined) some of the best ‘Tom Swifties’, and here fol­lows a se­lec­tion. While any punny ad­verb is grist to the mill, I think the ‘-ly’ end­ing ones suit the tra­di­tion best.

“I love pan­cakes,” said Tom flip­pantly.

“My pants are wrin­kled,” said Tom iron­i­cally.

“I lost my flower,” said Tom lack­adaisi­cally.

“My glasses are all fogged up,” said Tom op­ti­misti­cally.

“I’ll take the pris­oner down­stairs,” said Tom con­de­scend­ingly.

“The girl has been kid­napped,” said Tom mis­tak­enly.

“The fuzzy noise on my ra­dio is fi­nally gone,” said Tom ec­stat­i­cally.

“I passed my elec­tro­car­dio­gram,” said Tom whole­heart­edly.

“What I do best on camp­ing trips is sleep,” said Tom in­tently.

The in­ter­net gen­er­a­tion has their own take on Tom Swifties, coin­ing some ‘celebrity Swifts’ in the process. Try, if you will:

“You may have three wishes,” Cary granted.

“I don’t care how big your ho­tel is, mine is big­ger!” Don­ald trumped.

Old Tom Swifties never die; they just mu­tate. Word­smiths soon trans­ferred the echo from the ad­verb to the verb: “I’m dy­ing!” he croaked. And so a ‘Croaker’ was born. More on those next week.

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