What? You’ve never heard of a Tom Swifty? It’s a very brief kind of joke in which some rando named Tom does something in a certain way, such that the sentence has a pun. For example, “‘I’m not afraid of a little poison oak!’ Tom said rashly.” Typically, the punch line is an adverb, but not always. The first one I ever heard was, “‘I dropped the toothpaste,’ Tom said, crestfallen.” (I can’t decide whether or not to capitalize “Crest” here. In general, these jokes are spoken out loud, spontaneously, so that wouldn’t be a question.)
Where did this rich literary tradition start? Apparently with a series of books about a guy name Tom Swift who has cool sci-fi adventures and speaks in a certain way, usually involving adverbs. I don’t know that the character or author did much with puns, but these books were somehow an inspiration.
I reckon I was turned on to Tom Swifties by Boys’ Life magazine, which often featured a few of these ditties in their “Think and Grin” column. I’m pretty sure that’s where the “crestfallen” one came from.
I am constantly producing Tom Swifties. I don’t know why I do it … probably because I find life too boring to just plod through silently. I average perhaps five or ten of these a week, not that I’ve ever bothered to count. I speak them out loud to anybody in earshot, which usually (especially during the pandemic) means my wife and the one daughter still under my roof. I text them to the other daughter here and there, and my brother Max and I have been exchanging them for years.
My wife seems incredulous that I just throw these (albeit half-assed) jokes out there and let them drift away like mist instead of recording them (though I don’t think she actually likes them, per se). The daughter who gets the brunt of my Swifty fusillade has implored me to drop a bunch of them into a blog post. So here it is.
What makes a good Tom Swifty?
A very young child might miss the point entirely and produce a Tom Swifty like, “‘I am an idiot,’ Tom said stupidly.” While this is charming coming out of a child’s mouth, it lacks a pun and is pointless. When a pun is involved, obviously it’s better, as in, “‘I’m tired of riding a track bike,’ Tom said shiftlessly.” But this isn’t a particularly good one, because there’s nothing all that shiftless about not wanting to ride a track bike. In this sense the adverb seems a bit forced, or tacked on. It would be better to say, “‘I can’t be bothered to ride a track bike,’ Tom said shiftlessly.”
I say you get bonus points for creating the pun via a carefully, cleverly selected verb so that an adverb isn’t necessary; for example, “‘Conifers are the best trees,’ Tom opined.” Yes, this particular example requires that the audience knows what a conifer is. Does this dependence on specialized knowledge weaken the Swifty? Au contraire, I think it strengthens it because those who get it will feel smug. Those who don’t … well, to hell with them anyway.
The best Tom Swifty, I think, presents more than one pun by combining the right verb and the right adverb. This gives me the same satisfaction as skipping a stone multiple times across a lake. If Eminem did Tom Swifties, he’d probably do five or six in one go, but I don’t reckon I’ve ever gotten more than two puns (i.e., a triple-entendre). Here’s a recent example: “‘I’m so hungry I could eat a corvid,’ Tom crowed ravenously.”
Okay, that’s probably enough exposition—let’s get to the one-liners. Note that my own Tom Swifties are shown here in a regular font. The ones generated by my brother Max (or, in a few cases, my daughter) are in italics. I’ll probably add to this list over time, meaning my shortest-ever blog post could evolve into my longest.
“But I hate Chianti!” Tom whined.
“How can I shop when I can’t remember what to buy?” Tom asked listlessly.
“Nice boobs!” Tom tittered.
“California, Texas and Arkansas,” Tom stated.
“I want to screw it in,” Tom said inscrutably.
“Those dying embers need more air!” Tom bellowed.
“I’m pretty sure I have COVID,” Tom coughed dryly.
“Worthless cow’s got no milk,” Tom uttered.
“Lousy dog doesn’t even have a pedigree,” Tom muttered.
“One day we’ll discover a planet with four suns,” Tom foreshadowed.
“I’m so bummed, my favorite Swedish car company folded,” Tom sobbed.
“Mark, it’s great to see you Mark,” Tom remarked.
“I just had a bad accident with the power saw,” Tom said offhandedly.
“I like other boys!” Tom said gaily.
“Denmark is full of assholes,” Tom said disdainfully.
“We have to get out there with picket signs!” Tom protested.
“I don’t appreciate being crucified like this,” Tom said crossly.
“I only sheared three,” Tom admitted sheepishly.
“I bought another catcher’s glove for my collection,” Tom admitted.
“I know I said I can’t, but I didn’t really mean I can’t,” Tom recanted.
“Food isn’t very enjoyable since they cut my tongue out,” Tom wrote tastelessly.
“Only criminals can use this elevator,” Tom said condescendingly.
“I’m tired of catching thermals to gain altitude,” Tom said sorely.
“I am not an ass!” Tom brayed.
“It sucks being a double amputee,” Tom said defeatedly.
“Another flat!” Tom hissed tiredly.
“I have no use for unmarried women—they’re all whores,” Tom said dismissively.
“Another New Yorker … I can’t keep up,” Tom sighed weakly.
“B-O-U-N-D,” Tom said, spellbound.
“Another torte,” Tom retorted.
“I’m not an obsessive fan of any rap star,” Tom said standoffishly.
“You’re not a real man unless you’ve got corns and bunions,” Tom said callously.
“Be sure to leave a tip,” Tom said gratuitously.
“I hate the stench of burning hair, especially mine!” Tom fumed.
“I’m trying to create a framework for rehabilitating criminals,” Tom said contemplatively.
“I made you a friendship bracelet,” Tom said charmingly.
“I prefer Jack to Swiss,” Tom said mildly.
“I'd like to marry you,” Tom proposed engagingly.
“It’s okay, a good doctor is worth waiting for,” Tom said patiently.
“I'd literally kill for some Chinese food,” Tom said wantonly.
“I just lost bladder control!” Tom gushed.
“I'm not supposed to be in here,” Tom broke in.
“I have tons more hairlike locomotive appendages than you,” Tom said superciliously.
“It’s good, let me just season it a bit,” Tom added gingerly.
“I am obsessed with this Gregorian music,” Tom said, enchanted.
“Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve got herpes,” Tom mouthed sorely.
“Forget what I asserted just now!” Tom exclaimed.
“Pete Pete! Pete Pete!” Tom repeated.
“After all this sun exposure I’m sure to get melanoma,” Tom said darkly.
“Ring a ding ding!” Tom chimed in.
“You old fogeys know nothing about cloud computing!” Tom sassed.
“I scratched my throat eating all that hay,” Tom said hoarsely.
“I’m depressed from reading all those German folk tales,” Tom said grimly.
“The pipe will go here,” Tom said fittingly.
“My respiratory system is completely shutting down,” Tom said breathlessly.
“Time and Newsweek are essential reading,” Tom editorialized periodically.
“Can I join your singing group?” Tom inquired.
“Oh dear, I can’t get it up,” Tom said softly.
“I won’t eat Ruffles, they’re too hard to chew,” Tom said lazily.
“Silly Brits can’t even say ‘Mom’ right,” Tom mumbled.
Got a Tom Swifty?
If you think of your own such quip, post it as a comment below or email it to me. If I get enough I’ll add a “guest writer” section for them. And check back here, as I hope to add more Tom Swifties to my own compilation … maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon—and for the rest of your (well, my) life.