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What is a Tom Swifty?

Mary Elizabeth
By
Updated May 17, 2024
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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.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for WiseGeek, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By anon130768 — On Nov 29, 2010

I think the power is out, Tom stated darkly.

By anon27409 — On Feb 27, 2009

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

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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