Friday, March 3, 2017

“I think we’re going to be late,” Tom said, shortly.

tom swift.jpg

"Oh, I'm not a professor," he said quickly. "I'm a professional balloonist, parachute jumper. Give exhibitions at county fairs. Leap for life, and all that sort of thing. I guess you mean my friend. He's smart enough for a professor. Invented a lot of things. How much is the damage?"

"No professor?" cried Miss Perkman indignantly. "Why I understood from Miss Nestor that she called some one professor."

"I was referring to my friend, Mr. Swift," said Mary. "His father's a professor, anyhow, isn't he, Tom? I mean Mr. Swift!"

"I believe he has a degree, but he never uses it," was the lad's answer.

"Ha! Then I have been deceived! There is no professor present!" and the old maid drew herself up as though desirous of punishing someone. "Young ladies, for the last time, I order you to your rooms," and, with a dramatic gesture she pointed to the scuttle through which the procession had come.

"Say something, Tom — I mean Mr. Swift," appealed Mary Nestor, in a whisper, to our hero. "Can't you give some sort of a lecture? The girls are just crazy to hear about the airship, and this ogress won't let us. Say something!"

"I — I don't know what to say," stammered Tom.

Victor Appleton, Tom Swift and His Airship (1910)

Edward L. Stratemeyer, the hyper-prolific dime novelist turned assembly line publisher (the story of Stratemeyer and his Syndicate is here), had decided ideas about what made for snappy writing. As one account has it,

He replaced the verb “said” with “exclaimed,” “cried,” “chorused,” and so forth, and made sure that cliffhangers punctuated the end of each chapter—usually framed as a question or an exclamation.

The standard syntax is for the quoted sentence to be first, followed by the description of the act of speaking. The hypothetical speaker is usually, by convention, called "Tom" (or "he" or "she"), unless some other name is needed for the pun.

It was a novelty a century ago, but after Stratemeyer and his heirs spent 75 years blanketing America with their series YA novels, the literary tic became a sort of punchline. The great American writer and philologist, Willard Espy (1910-1989), one of the masters of wordplay, who compiled two wonderful collections of poems, essays, quizzes, and other writings about language: An Almanac of Words at Play (1975) and Another Almanac of Words at Play (1980). He called them “Tom Swifties.”

Punsters and wordplay adepts have long since left the books behind. Poor Tom has become a hapless literary character, knocking back drinks in a dive bar with Canon Spooner and Mrs Malaprop.

Here’s a selection of the best of Tom Swiftys:

"I'll have a martini, easy on the vermouth" said Tom, drily.

"Who left the toilet seat down?" Tom asked peevishly.

"Pass me the shellfish," said Tom crabbily.

"I’ll never try lion-taming again," Tom said off-handedly.

"Can I go looking for the Grail again?" Tom requested.

"I unclogged the drain with a vacuum cleaner," said Tom succinctly.

"I might as well be dead," Tom croaked.

"We struck oil!" Tom gushed.

"It's freezing," Tom muttered icily.

"Hurry up and get to the back of the ship!" Tom said sternly.

"I wish I drove a Scandinavian car," Tom sobbed.

"Happy Birthday," Tom said presently.

"Walk this way," Tom said stridently.
"You ever seen one this big?" Tom bragged cockily.

"I dropped my toothpaste," Tom said, crestfallen.
"I love hot dogs," said Tom with relish.

"The exit is right there," Tom pointed out.

I’ll never play Russian roulette again,” Tom mused absentmindedly.

"The thermostat is set too high," said Tom heatedly.

Wikipedia’s history notes,

Tom Swifties first came to prominence in the United States with the 1963 publication of the book "Tom Swifties" by Paul Pease and Bill McDonough. The spread of Tom Swifties was abetted by an article in the May 31, 1963 edition of TIME Magazine, which also announced a contest for its readers to submit their own Tom Swifties. Included was a special category, "TIME Swifties," which were to contain a reference to TIME Magazine; however, only a few submissions were made of this nature. Among the submissions that were subsequently printed was "Someone has stolen my movie camera!" Tom bellowed and howled.

The TIME contest caused the popularity of Tom Swifties to grow, for a period of some years. Tom Swifties found a large teenage audience on the joke column on the last page of each month's issue of Boys' Life, the magazine for Boy Scouts.

In January 2017 Jack Waley-Cohen appeared on the British BBC Radio 4 programme The Museum of Curiosity; his hypothetical donation to this imaginary museum was "A Book of Tom Swifties".

Swifties are a literary grandchild of the great British author Charles Dickens (1812-1870). “Wellerisms”, named after sayings of Sam Weller in Dickens's novel The Pickwick Papers (1837), make fun of established clichés and proverbs by showing that they are wrong in certain situations, often when taken literally. In this sense, one explanation has it, wellerisms that include proverbs are a type of anti-proverb. Typically a wellerism consists of three parts: a proverb or saying, a speaker, and an often humorously literal explanation:

"Out vith it, as the father said to his child, when he swallowed a farden."

"Wery glad to see you, indeed, and hope our acquaintance may be a long 'un, as the gen'l'm'n said to the fi' pun' note."

"All good feelin', sir – the wery best intentions, as the gen'l'm'n said ven he run away from his wife 'cos she seemed unhappy with him."

"There; now we look compact and comfortable, as the father said ven he cut his little boy's head off, to cure him o' squintin'."

"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."

"Sorry to do anythin' as may cause an interruption to such wery pleasant proceedin's, as the king said wen he dissolved the parliament."

Nor did Wellerisms begin with Weller- or Dickens:

Some researchers concentrate on wellerisms found in English and European languages, but Alan Dundes documented them in the Yoruba language of Nigeria (Dundes 1964), with African scholars confirming and adding to his findings (Ojoade 1980, Opata 1988, 1990).

Wellerisms are also common in many Ethiopian languages, including Guji Oromo,(where nine of 310 proverbs in a published collection are wellerisms) and Alaaba (where about 10% of 418 proverbs were found to be quotations). They are also found in ancient Sumerian: "The fox, having urinated into the sea, said: 'The depths of the sea are my urine!'"


"Alle beetjes helpen", zei de mug en hij pieste in zee.
(English: "Every little bit helps," said the gnat and it pissed in the sea.)

"Alles met mate", zei de kleermaker en hij sloeg zijn vrouw met de el.
(English: "Everything should be done measuredly," said the tailor and he hit his wife with a ruler.)

.נחיה ונראה," אמר העיוור למת"
(English: "We shall wait and see", said the blind to the dead. (lit. "live and see"))

"Да будет свет!" сказал монтёр и перерезал провода.
(English: "Let there be light!" said an electrician and cut the wires.)

Antillean Creole French, Martinique:
"Rabbit says, 'Eat everything, drink everything, but don't tell everything'."

The horse, after he had thrown off his rider [said], "If my burden is always to be thus, I shall become weak."

Choice of speaker

In a number of languages, especially in Africa, wellerisms are formed with animals as the speaker. In some cases, the choice of the animal may not carry much significance. However, in some cases, such as in the Chumburung language of Ghana, the choice of the specific animal as speaker is a significant part of some proverbs, "chosen precisely for characteristics that illustrate the proverb... Chameleon says quickly quickly is good and slowly slowly is good." Similarly, there is an Ewe proverb that quotes an animal that is specifically appropriate to that wellerism, "The chicken says that, it is because of humility that he bows down before entering its coop."

Another example of a speaker being specifically chosen to go with the statement in a wellerism is "The bat says that there is no difference between standing down and upright," from the Tiv language in Nigeria.

Dialogue proverbs

Wellerisms are similar but not identical to dialogue proverbs. Wellerisms contain the speech of one speaker, but dialogue proverbs contain direct speech from more than one. They are found in a number of languages, including Armenian, French, Georgian,Kasena of Ghana, and Pashto of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"Let me go, Spider!" "How can I let go of my meat?" "Then get on with it, eat me!" "How can I eat a fly?" - Kasena

"I have caught a bear." "Get rid of him." "I can’t, he won’t let me go." - Armenian

The vulture says, “I’ll shriek and the shepherd will forget,” [and] the wolf says, “I’ll eat the kid’s tail.” - Luri language of Iran

Dickens, who was one of the late 19th century’s literary rock stars when Edward Stratemeyer was growing up, never quite gave up on his wellerisms. In Our Mutual Friend (1865)- his last copleted novel- Dickens included this groaner:

"How Do You Like London?" Mr Podsnap now inquired from his station of host, as if he were administering something in the nature of a powder or potion to the deaf child; "London, Londres, London?"

The foreign gentleman admired it.

"You find it Very Large?" said Mr. Podsnap, spaciously.

But Tom Swift, Edward Stratemeyer’s boy inventor, has put even Sam Weller to shame through 103 adventures over 107 years:

In the original series, Tom Swift lives in fictional Shopton, New York. He is the son of Barton Swift, the founder of the Swift Construction Company. Tom's mother is deceased, but the housekeeper, Mrs. Baggert, functions as a surrogate mother. Tom usually shares his adventures with close friend Ned Newton, who eventually becomes the Swift Construction Company's financial manager. For most of the series, Tom dates Mary Nestor. It has been suggested that his eventual marriage to Mary led to the series' demise, as young boys found a married man harder to identify with than a young, single one; however, after the 1929 marriage the series continued for 12 more years and eight further volumes. Regularly appearing characters include Wakefield Damon, an older man, whose dialogue is characterized by frequent use of such whimsical expressions as "Bless my brakeshoes!" and "Bless my vest buttons!"

The original Tom Swift has been claimed to represent the early 20th-century conception of inventors. Tom has no formal education after high school;  according to critic Robert Von der Osten, Tom's ability to invent is presented as "somehow innate". Tom is not a theorist but a tinkerer and, later, an experimenter who, with his research team, finds practical applications for others' research; Tom does not so much methodically develop and perfect inventions as find them by trial and error.

Unlike many Stratemeyer heroes and heroines- the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew come to mind- Tom Swift grew up and married his childhood squeeze, Mary Nestory, by the time the forty-volume first series was killed off in 1941 (Stratemeyer, who died in 1930, was succeeded by his two daughters; one, Harriet, assumed full control in 1942).

With the post-war boom in big, government-funded science and space exploration, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams brought Tom Swift out of retirement in 1954. Only in this series, cleverly written by “Victor Appleton II”, son of the original nonexistent author,

the Tom Swift of the original series is now the CEO of Swift Enterprises, a four-mile-square enclosed facility where inventions are conceived and manufactured. Tom's son, Tom Swift, Jr., is now the primary inventive genius of the family. Stratemeyer Syndicate employee Andrew Svenson described the new series as based "on scientific fact and probability, whereas the old Toms were in the main adventure stories mixed with pseudo-science". Three Ph.D.s in science were hired as consultants to the series to ensure scientific accuracy.

The younger Tom does not tinker with motorcycles; his inventions and adventures extend from deep within the Earth (in Tom Swift and His Atomic Earth Blaster [1954]) to the bottom of the ocean (in Tom Swift and His Diving Seacopter [1956]) to the moon (in Tom Swift in the Race to the Moon [1958]) and, eventually, the outer solar system (in Tom Swift and His Cosmotron Express [1970]). Later volumes of the series increasingly emphasized the extraterrestrial "space friends", as they are termed throughout the series. The beings appear as early as the first volume of the series, Tom Swift and His Flying Lab (1954).

The Tom Swift, Jr., Adventures were less commercially successful than the first series, selling 6 million copies total, compared with sales of 14 million copies for the first series.

In contrast to the earlier series, many of Tom Jr.'s inventions are designed to operate in space, and his "genius is unequivocally original as he constructs nuclear-powered flying labs, establishes outposts in space, or designs ways to sail in space on cosmic rays".

Unlike his father, Tom Jr. is not just a tinkerer; he relies on scientific and mathematical theories, and, according to critic Robert Von der Osten, "science [in the books] is, in fact, understood to be a set of theories that are developed based on experimentation and scientific discussion. Rather than being opposed to technological advances, such a theoretical understanding becomes essential to invention."

Tom Swift, Jr.'s Cold War-era adventures and inventions are often motivated by patriotism, as Tom repeatedly defeats the evil agents of the fictional nations "Kranjovia" and "Brungaria", the latter a place that critic Francis Molson describes as "a vaguely Eastern European country, which is strongly opposed to the Swifts and the U.S. Hence, the Swifts' opposition to and competition with the Brungarians is both personal and patriotic."

By the third series (1981-84)- the last overseen by Harriet Adams before the Stratemeyer Syndicate was bought up by Simon & Schuster- Tom Swift had become an action figure, spending most of his time exploring the universe in his spaceships. Two shorter runs appeared in the 1990s and in 2006-07.

By that measure, it’s about time for Tom Swift to return to earth from his Billionaire Space Camp on the Moon and run for President.

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