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Word Play With Wellerisms and Tom Swifties

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Sam Weller as envisioned by Joseph Clayton Clark who worked under the pseudonym “Kyd.”

Sam Weller as envisioned by Joseph Clayton Clark who worked under the pseudonym “Kyd.”

Sam Weller’s Fun With Words

In The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens created the character Sam Weller. He was the good-natured and worldly-wise servant to the kind and naïve Samuel Pickwick. Weller is smart as a whip and is given to playing with words.

Playing With Words

Sam and his father Tom were fond of puns and of taking clichés, proverbs, and the like and twisting them to create a humourous effect.

Here’s a Pickwickian Wellerism: “Out vith it, as the father said to his child, when he swallowed a farden (farthing).”

The two Wellers enjoying a pint with a cat hoping for a tidbit from the table.

The two Wellers enjoying a pint with a cat hoping for a tidbit from the table.

The Island English Tutor explains what is going on here: “A Wellerism is a sentence with a speaker and a narrator; after the speaker speaks, the narrator adds commentary that undermines the sentiment of the speaker sometimes by employing some equivocation―changing the meaning of the speaker’s idea.”

Here’s another Wellerism from the pen of Charles Dickens: “Vich I call addin’ insult to injury, as the parrot said ven they not only took him from his native land, but made him talk the English langwidge arterwards.”

Scholars who study these things say that Dickens did not invent Wellerisms, he popularized them so that they took on the name of his character.

Peter Unseth and colleagues at the Dallas International University say King Oswald of Northumbria can claim the honour of creating the form in 642 CE. He is reported to have said as he succumbed to wounds on a battlefield, “ ‘May God have mercy on their souls,’ said Oswald, falling to the ground.” Not really very humourous in the style of Sam Weller, but it contains the necessary elements to qualify as a member of the genre.

That is the first known example in English, although Oswald did not speak English as we understand it today. There are said to be examples of the form in other languages long before Oswald breathed his last before being dismembered and displayed by the Mercians who killed him.

“Very glad to see you, indeed, and hope our acquaintance may be a long one, as the gentleman said to the five-pound note.”

— Sam Weller

Non-Weller Wellerisms

Since the debut of Mr. Weller and his playful use of the language, others have stepped up with their own Wellerisms. Here’s a sampling:

  • “ ‘So I see,’ said the blind carpenter as he picked up his hammer and saw.”
  • “ ‘We’ll have to rehearse that,’ said the undertaker as the coffin fell out of the car.”
  • “ ‘My business is looking good,’ said the model.”
  • “ ‘Keep your mouth shut,’ said Daniel, as he entered the lion’s den.”
  • “ ‘Don’t move, I’ve got you covered,’ said the wallpaper to the wall.”
  • “ ‘I stand corrected,’ said the man in the orthopedic shoes.”

Tom Swifties

Related to Wellerisms these adornments to the English language can be traced back to Victor Appleton, an author of books published by the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Victor Appleton was a house pseudonym used by the publisher to cover the work of several writers who turned out novels in a series about a young scientist called Tom Swift, Jr.

The series was similar to the more familiar Nancy Drew, Bobbsey Twins, and Hardy Boys books. The first in the series appeared in 1910 and, more than 100 volumes later, they are still being produced and the venerable Victor Appleton is still credited as the author.

The cover of one of the prolific Victor Appleton's many novels.

The cover of one of the prolific Victor Appleton's many novels.

The many Victor Appletons took to finding ways around the boring “he said” at the end of dialogue. So, the word “said” was modified with an adverb; the classic example is “ ‘We must hurry,’ said Tom Swiftly.”

The Random House Dictionary of the English Language explains the basic rules: A Tom Swiftie is “a play on words that follows an unvarying pattern and relies for its humor on a punning relationship between the way an adverb describes a speaker and at the same time refers significantly to the import of the speaker’s statement, as in ‘I know who turned off the lights,’ Tom hinted darkly.”

The figure of speech escaped from the Tom Swift novels and took their name from the title of the book series; creating new Tom Swifties became a popular entertainment with the general public. Here are a few examples:

  • “ ‘Your Honour, you’re crazy,’ said Tom judgementally.”
  • “ ‘This salad dressing has too much vinegar’, said Tom acidly.”
  • “ ‘The doctor had to remove my left ventricle,’ said Tom half-heartedly.”
  • “ ‘I just swallowed a fishing lure,’ said Tom with baited breath.”

The Canonical Collection of Tom Swifties, collected acquisitively by Mark Israel, lists 55 Tom Swifties under the letter A alone. However, omitted is one pulled out of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1865): “ ‘You find it very large?’ said Mr Podsnap, spaciously.”

The many writers of the Tom Swift books went to great pains not to repeat a “Swifty” that had appeared in a previous book.

More Fictional Word Idiosyncrasies

In 1965, a television comedy sitcom called Till Death Us Do Part burst upon the scene in Britain. The protagonist was a conservative, working-class bigot called Alf Garnett.

The U.S. picked up the idea and created All in the Family, a toned down version of the British original. In the American version, the central character was Archie Bunker, although the writers gave him a very limited command of English. He was prone to turn out Bunkerisms that were a combination of mispronunciations, wrong word choices, and ill-informed nonsense.

Here are a few Bunkerisms:

  • “The atheist religion don’t believe in the Bible.”
  • “Her husband was infidelicate with another woman.”
  • “Making suppository remarks about our country.”
  • “Between here and Florida, ya got your original 48 states.”
  • “What you need is somebody new . . . there’s more than one fish in the woodpile.”

So, Archie Bunker can join Sam Weller and Tom Swifty as fictional characters that enlivened English with their unconventional use of the language.

Bonus Factoids

  • A paraprosdokian is the entirely forgettable name for a sentence that contains a surprise ending in its second half. It is the stock in trade for comedians as per these examples:

“Take my wife―please” (Henny Youngman)

“My wife ran off with the man next door―I’m going to miss him” (Les Dawson).

  • Tom Swifties remained largely obscure until 1963 when Time Magazine ran an article and a contest about the device. One of the entries was “ ‘Someone has stolen my movie camera’ Tom bellowed and howled,” referencing the maker of many home movie cameras Bell and Howell.
  • There are grammar pedants who insist that, given the prominence of adverbs, the correct name is Tom Swiftlies.
  • Quick. No peeking, but what’s the name of the figure of speech that comedians like to use? Forgettable isn’t it?

“I'm no good at playing darts,” Tom said aimlessly.


© 2022 Rupert Taylor