The term wellerism derives from Sam Weller, the name of a character in Charles Dickens’ “The Pickwick Papers”, which was published in monthly installments from April 1836 to November 1837. Sam Weller (and his father Tony Weller) became immensely popular with Victorian audiences, and triggered numerous adaptations and dramatizations of their adventures.
Why all the fuss? The Wellers had a particular way of making a point. A typical Weller utterance (what came to be called a wellerism as of 1839), consisted of three parts:
a) a main statement in the form of a well-known saying, proverb, or quotation
b) a speaker who makes the statement
c) a phrase that casts a new light on the main statement, usually by applying it to a facetiously literal and comically incongruous situation
Here are some wellerisms from “The Pickwick Papers”. (Page references and spelling conventions as per the 1983 Bantam Classic Edition.)
“He wants you particklar; and no one else’ll do, as the Devil’s private secretary said ven he fetched avay Doctor Faustus,” replied Mr. Weller. (Ch. 15, p. 183)
“And a wery good notion of a lunch it is, take it altogether,” said Mr. Weller, surveying his arrangement of the repast with great satisfaction. “Now, gen’l’m’n, “fall on,” as the English said to the French when they fixed bagginets.” (Ch. 19, p. 241)
“…Business first, pleasure arterwards, as King Richard the Third said wen he stabbed the t’other king in the Tower, afore he smothered the babbies.” (Ch. 25, p. 319)
“Fine time for them as is well wropped up, as the Polar Bear said to himself, ven he was practising his skating,” replied Mr. Weller. (Ch. 30, p. 382)
Although the golden age of wellerisms was from the late 1830s to about 1880, the humoristic genre that we identify as a wellerism dates back to 2500 BC. Wellerisms have been found in the cuneiform tablets of ancient Sumeria and all through antiquity, to the writings of Plato (427-347 BC), Theocritus (3rd c. BC), and Quintilian (35-100 AD). What is more, wellerisms do not know chronological, geographical, or linguistic boundaries: Scholars have recorded wellerisms in northern and southern Europe, in the Baltic/Slavic language families, as well as in African languages and dialects. The structure may vary, but the essence of this humoristic form remains essentially the same: The conditions of life are what they are, but at least we can poke fun at them.
Over the years, as wellerisms kept going through cycles of thematic adjustments and creative regeneration, the focus started to shift from the comic situation towards the linguistic pun, the wordplay. The following two examples of 20th century wellerisms illustrate this shift:
“Don’t get in a jam,” said one strawberry to the other.
“I’ll raise you two,” said the wealthy lady to the orphans.
A fairly recent development of the wellerism, that relies heavily on wordplay, is the Tom Swifty. Tom Swifties, at least in their traditional form, use an adverb as a means of giving the preceding statement a naughtily humorous turn. For example:
“No, no! I will not eat that apple,” Tom said adamantly.
In the realm of wordplay, anything goes.