Monday, January 16, 2012


Everyone knows, I expect, that the word laser is an acronym of “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.”  I had always thought that taser—you know, the supposedly non-lethal electric device police use to subdue obstreperous little old ladies—was formed from something similar.

But no!  It turns out taser has nothing to do with laser, except that it rhymes with it. Taser is actually a trademarked name for a device that fires electrified darts that will incapacitate rowdy human targets long enough for them to be handcuffed and trundled off to wherever it is they trundle trouble-makers off to.

The taser was invented by Jack Cover, a NASA researcher, and he named it after a favorite adventure novel called Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle, by Victor Appleton (a pseudonym for several writers in the Stratemeyer Syndicate), published in 1911.  Cover added a gratuitous middle initial to come up with the acronym Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle, or taser. 

Those of you who had the decency to fork over $22.95 for my book Words Gone Wild (now available at for as little as $2.63) will know all about Tom Swift and the resulting Tom Swifty—wordplay derived from the (not quite accurate) observation that Tom’s statements were always qualified by adverbs, as in “I wouldn’t call a constable,” Tom said quietly.

The idea of a Tom Swifty (and its relative, the croaker, which uses verbs instead of adverbs) is to make the most outlandish pun possible.  A few notorious examples, some, but not all, of which can be found in the aforementioned book, are:

“Your honor, you’re crazy,” Tom said judgmentally.

“I haven’t had any tooth decay yet,” Tom said precariously.

“I love Brazilian dances,” Tom said somberly.

“I also like Cuban dances,” Tom rumbled.

“I love the French Riviera,” Tom said nicely.

“I especially like the film festival on the Riviera,” Tom said cannily.

“The umpire called me out,” Tom said baselessly.

“Elvis is dead,” Tom said expressly.

“My radio works perfectly now,” Tom said ecstatically.

“I work in the prison cocktail bar,” Tom contended.

Well, enough of that.  Let’s move on now to more sublime topics, for which we can always count (but not much) on the Bard of Buffalo Bayou: 

                       There once was a guy named Tom Swift,

                        Whose 9-to-5 shift got short shrift.

                        By noon he would lift

                        Several pints—get my drift?—

                        To show he was Swift getting squiffed.

No comments:

Post a Comment