Mental Floss

Weekend Word Wrap: Tom Swifties

David K. Israel

Some years ago, I was reading a book of short stories called Birds of America, by one of my favorite authors, Lorrie Moore, and happened upon my first Tom Swifty. In the story, "Community Life," a few of Moore's characters are librarians and pass their downtime at work thinking up good ones like, "I have to go to the hardware store, he said wrenchingly" or "There's never been an accident, she said recklessly."

The phrase "Tom Swifty" was coined in the 1920s and comes from a series of adventure books about a boy named "“ surprise, surprise "“ Tom Swift, who regularly employed a qualifying adverb like "quickly" or "jokingly" when he spoke.

The series was written by one Victor Appleton, who you might think you've never read. But there you'd be wrong, as Appleton was a penname for good old Edward Stratemeyer, the creator of none other than the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, and Nancy Drew.

To create a "true" Tom Swifty, all you need do is make a pun out of your qualifying adverb, such as Lorrie Moore did with "This hot dog's awful, she said frankly."

So go ahead, try one. They're easy. And once you start, you'll be hooked, he said, casting about for his rod and reel. Okay, so that wasn't a true Tom Swifty as there was no adverb. So I'll leave you to your long weekend with this one, then: "David! Cut it out already, his readers said sharply."