Time Magazine launches its "Tom Swifty" contest today in 1963.
"Tom Swifties" are a special kind of pun associated with Victor Appleton's Tom Swift book series, in which the author avoided the use of simple "said" as a dialogue tag. The Tom Swifty evolved into a pun in which the dialogue tag relates humorously to what the character said. The figures of speech gained prominence when Time magazine sponsored a contest for the best Tom Swifties in 1963.
- Share some examples of Tom Swifties and ask students to notice what they have in common. Literary examples include Charles Dickens' "'You find it Very Large?' said Mr. Podsnap, spaciously," work well, but everyday examples such as "'I need to milk the cows now,' Tom uddered" or "'I dropped my toothpaste,' Tom said, crest-fallen" might give students more to work with.
- Together, generate a list of principles about what makes Tom Swifties work. Importantly, the way in which a speaker says something comments on or relates to what was said in a humorous way. Often the dialogue tag has multiple meanings; single-word or phrase-length dialogue tags work equally well; and product names (such as Cheer or Clue) offer potential for punning as well.
- Let students meet in small groups to generate some Tom Swifties of their own. After the have had time to develop and polish a few, have a contest of your own to celebrate the best examples.
Mark Israel's thorougly sourced collection offers some background on the Tom Swifty and an alphabetically categorized list.
This site is a catalog of many of the Tom Swift books, focusing on the scientific nature of their plots.
Though this site requires a subscription to view all its content, students can get a sense of the popularity of the Tom Swifty through the link to the contest in the Society: Games section.