A correspondent sent me a link to Mark Forsyth’s The Inky Fool post on the etymology of taser, remarking that it was news to him. It’s news to me, too, and I quote Mark’s post, which tells the story well:

The taser was invented by a NASA scientist called Jack Cover who worked on it between 1969 and 1974. He had been inspired by a series of children’s books about a hero called Tom Swift. Tom Swift is an adventuring sort of chap who goes around having adventures, sometimes in darkest, deepest Africa and sometimes on the Moon. There have been over a hundred Tom Swift books published since 1910 and they still seem to be going strong, there was even a Tom Swift board game once. However, the one that interests us is the tenth in the series which was published in 1911: Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle. In this one Tom Swift goes elephant hunting when he discovers that some of his friends have been taken hostage by a tribe of red pygmies. Luckily for the hero (but unluckily for the red pygmies) Tom has with him his brand new invention: a rifle that uses electricity rather than bullets. It can therefore be set to different ranges and different levels of lethality, so he can stun elephants, kill pygmies etc.

It was this invention that Jack Cover was attempting to imitate, and he even decided to call it Tom Swift’s Electric Rifle, or TSER. However, as that didn’t make a catchy acronym he decided to add a gratuitous initial and make it Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle, or TASER.

Of course, it occurred to me that it might be too good a story, and my suspicions were aroused when neither M-W nor AHD had it, but then I turned to the OED and found “Etymology: Acronym < the initial letters of Tom Swift’s electric rifle (a fictitious weapon), after laser n.” If it’s good enough for the OED, it’s good enough for me. (Thanks, Bruce!)


  1. a tribe of red pygmies
    Spooky fact: the first functional laser “used a solid-state flashlamp-pumped synthetic ruby crystal to produce red laser light”.

  2. Yeah, this has cropped up from time to time on Yahoo! Answers, and regularly gets thumbs-downs. But a search on Google Books finds multiple reliable sources for this acronym. Either it’s real, or there has been some massive conspiracy or collective gullibility among hard-nosed academic/forensic publications. Real seems more likely.

  3. We all know that POSH doesn’t derive from “Port Out Starboard Home”; and FUCK doesn’t stand for “Fornication Under Consent of the King”; and the rest. So our first inclination is to resist this kind of seemingly outlandish derivation.

  4. Killing red pygmies sounds very un-PC.

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    The difference between this and “posh” etc. is that “taser” describes a newly-invented device and is thus more inherently likely to have been a self-conscious coinage (and a coinage by the sort of geeky/techie guy who would likely have read a lot of Tom Swift books growing up). On the other hand, we should perhaps not exclude the possibility that what really motivated “taser” was rhymes-with-laser, giving it that cool and marketable modern sci-fi weapon vibe, with the coiner(s) then casting about for a phrase which would justify something-rhyming-with-laser as an initialism. It could thus be what wikipedia calls a “backronym” (or “bacronym”), but not inauthentic to the extent it was selected for marketing purposes by the coiner(s) of the underlying word rather than made up for humorous and or folk-etymology purposes by unrelated third parties some years later.

  6. Killing red pygmies sounds very un-PC.
    Would killing blue pygmies be more acceptable ? Is it pygmies, their color or killing that is un-PC ?
    Let’s assume that pygmies and color, each considered separately, are not un-PC. We might also assume that killing is not un-PC, because there are situations where it would seem to be acceptable, for example in order to ward off slimy aliens of evil intent.
    Then the un-PCness of killing red pygmies would be what is called an “emergent property”. Only a certain combination of pygmies, color and killing would be un-PC.
    This analysis of un-PCness as an emergent property explains why charges that something is “not politically correct” turn up so unexpectedly – almost as if at the whim of the charger.

  7. By the way, Bathrobe, I took your remark to be a jocular one. I just used it to as an excuse to ridicule “PC” and all its works. So no offense intended.

  8. I’m not one to ignore the authority of the OED either, but the date (1969 to 1974) during which the inventor worked on this makes me suspect that PHASER (the original STAR TREK’s airing was from 1966 to 1969) may have played as great or a greater role than LASER in the coining of TASER. For a reader of Tom Swift novels to become a (bit of a) trekkie doesn’t seem that big of a leap, does it? And phasers can merely stun, which does make them more taser- than laser-like…

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    I will accept Etienne’s point as a friendly amendment.

  10. The authority of the OED is not a static property, once acquired or granted and thereafter immutable. The OED compilers rework entries over different editions, adding and removing as knowledge and assumptions shift and replace each other. If anyone thinks the Star Trek connection should be added, he can notify the OED compilers.

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    I would think TSER would have been a perfectly cromulent acronym/initialism by the morphological standards of the day (so adding a random extra letter was not mandatory) – it would just have been pronounced “teaser,” thus blocking the laser/phaser associations.

  12. mollymooly says

    The true story could easily be garbled into a suggestion that “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle” was the name applied in the original 1911 book, rather than a name invented c.1970 in allusion to it. That, like most acroynm etymythologies, would be anachronistic and Yahoo users would be justified to doubt it.

  13. dearieme says

    Killing red pygmies sounds pretty good to me, but I hope that conservative, liberal and social democrat pygmies weren’t treated so savagely.

  14. Apparently NONSTICKFRYINGPAN was originally a NASA acronym. The so-called “frying pan” is a back-formation.

  15. Wiki on Taser International, the main producers of the device, says: “TASER takes its name after a fictional weapon: Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.” The reference given is “Company Trivia”. TASER International, Inc.. Retrieved 2008-09-04. but the link comes up with a 404.
    I suspect they are now taking themselves so seriously that the trivia page was dropped.

  16. The taser was a development of NASA’s earlier ELECTRICFRYINGPAN.

  17. I don’t have a lot of books here (like wot I use ter have) so please correct me if I’m mis-remembering, but in Larry Niven’s Known Space, there were (I THINK) “tasers” that, when fired, knocked the (humanoid?) target out humanely with a blast through the pleasure centres of the brain*. A far cry from the nasty-but-not-usually-lethal tasers used by innumerable trigger-happy police departments today. I don’t know where Niven got the name (if I am remembering it correctly – some wandering in websites has failed to turn up correction nor corroboration).
    *sometimes engendering a possible later addiction to electronic stimulation of said pleasure centre.

  18. knocked the (humanoid?) target out humanely with a blast through the pleasure centres of the brain … sometimes engendering a possible later addiction to electronic stimulation of said pleasure centre
    That is now called advertising. Over the decades, its effectiveness has been improved by focussing development efforts on addiction enhancement instead of initial blast.

  19. Catanea, those were tasps, not tasers. They didn’t actually render you unconscious, just not in a mood to take aggressive action.
    On Niven’s website, he has an article about neologisms in science fiction stories, notably but not exclusively his own. His entry on tasp reads:

    Tasp is short and easy to say. Such words give away the fact that they are in common currence throughout a culture, like lamp and pan and pen. Insults in particular tend to be short, ugly words (like Mack Reynolds’ nardy flat!).

    Another relevant paragraph:

    Incidentally, droud was a typographical error I kept making for crowd, as the shisp in hachiroph shisp was a typo for ships. I kept making the same mistakes until I used them in this fashion, and that got me over it. Use your typos.

  20. Damn it, yes. I found it after I walked the dogs.
    O jalá! Let’s invent the tasp really quickly, because tasers are nasty.

  21. The reference to Tom Swift is correct. I worked with Jack Cover when we started AIR TASER, Inc. now called TASER International, Inc. Jack also helped us on our first designs of the AIR TASER model 34000 which was a non-firearm version of an improved TASER electronic control device we made in 1994. Jack was a unique man and had a prolific life (see his obituary in the New Times at:
    Steve Tuttle
    VP of Communications & Public Affairs
    TASER International

  22. Johmn Emerson says

    There’s a down side to the OED which I just discovered. I have an Oxford French-English Dictionary which I like just fine, EXCEPT that if a French word has a cognate synonym in English, no matter how obscure, this dictionary gives the cognate synonym rather than the common English word or a definition.
    But of course, if you are Mr. Oxford Dictionary Person, there’s no such thing as an “obscure” word.

  23. Catanea: وشاء الله (wa-šā’ allāh) ‘and may God will it’ indeed!

  24. Thanks, Steve Tuttle, it’s good to hear it from the horse’s mouth!

  25. “What, no Swifties yet in this thread?” Tom asked shockingly.

  26. The only thing about that which very slightly irks me is that the device in question very decidedly is not, nor ever was, a rifle at all–it is and always has been a pistol.

  27. Well, I dunno, maybe some of them are rifle-sized/rifle-shapd. I hope you can find something else to be irked by instead.

  28. I wonder why the Russian side of wikipedia mentions Tom Swift and his taser, but not the English. Russian article doesn’t mention torture issues, but half of the English article is about controversies.

  29. Russian article doesn’t mention torture issues. I hope you can find something else to be irked by instead.

  30. I recently read the WiPe article re The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (learning that I hadn’t missed anything). It seemed to me the authors missed the bet by having Tom Sawyer as their token American hero; I thought Tom Swift would have been better.

  31. Courtesy of Google alerts I have found this thread.
    First of all, the real MASER and LASER predate Star Trek’s phaser. Science fiction is replete with “death ray” devices. See Everett Bleiler’s Science Fiction: The Early Years (Kent State University Press, 1990) for many pre-1930 examples.
    I have seen very early articles from newspapers where Cover cited the origin of the name as coming from Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle (Grosset & Dunlap, 1911) as by “Victor Appleton”. This story was produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate (q.v. Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, etc.) and ghostwritten by Howard R. Garis (1873-1962) from Edward Stratemeyer’s outline (1862-1973). However, in the Tom Swift story (see copies in Project Gutenberg and elsewhere) the rifle uses bullets of wireless energy. It can be adjusted for both range and intensity from stun to nearly disintegrate (against a whale attacking the steamer to Africa).
    This description is quite different from Cover’s Air TASER device which shoots out barbed darts with trailing wires through which the stunning current flows. That description of a device is matched exactly in an earlier Stratemeyer Syndicate book called Under the Ocean to the South Pole (Cupples & Leon, 1907) as by “Roy Rockwood”. This is another Garis effort working from Stratemeyer’s outlines in a series of Verne-like tales to the poles, underground, and several solar system planets. Under the Ocean to the South Pole is an undersea tale akin to Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas (French 1870, English 1872). The underwater rifles used in the Rockwood story shoot out barbed darts with wires just like the TASER.
    Not being a lawyer, I don’t know if a 1907 fictional account constitutes “prior art” conflicts for a patent application. After all, some patents read more like science fiction (e.v. machine vision patent). It is unlikely that any examiner was familiar with this tale but I think it likely that Cover could have read this from the same source of books where he got Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle as these popular books, though from competing publishers, were fairly widely read in certain decades.
    Of course Verne has underwater electric rifles after a fashion too. His use charged Leyden jars which are propelled with compressed air and discharge upon contact with their target.
    I discussed all of this back in 1999 or so in this paper:
    To the comment about “Tom Swifty” jokes, I’d note that there are very few examples of the joke’s sentence structure in the books: “Some quote,” said Tom {adverb ending in ly}. Instead, the books of this era made a conscious effort to avoid overuse of “said”. Instead they used a variety of “verbs of speech” to express the manner of the phrase uttered. This was not limited to Syndicate productions but was a common style of the time.
    For LXG, the characters and materials used in the graphic novel are often different from those used in the film because of which characters and texts were public domain in literature vs. film. Tom Sawyer was fully PD so easy to use in the film where something like Tom Swift may have been under trademark protection if they had wanted to use it for the same purpose. The film was disappointing. I hope to dig into the graphic novels one of these days since they are well regarded in some circles.

  32. Thanks, James Keeline. Your explanation was plausible until I read the ‘trivia’ on the imdb page re the movie. The Tom Sawyer character was based on the novels Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective.
    Grumbly: We could put up with the horseshit in the street better than putting up with lung-damaging additives in gasoline.

  33. Actually, we could not. By 1898, the total amount of horse manure being generated by New York City’s more than 150,000 horses amounted to 1.3 kilotons per day plus 150,000 liters of horse urine, to say nothing of about 150 dead horses (the working life of a NYC horse was three years). Much of the manure was stored in vacant lots in piles up to 20m high; the supply completely overwhelmed the demand for it as fertilizer. The Ford Model T, which became available in 1908, was just in time to stave off what has been called the Horse Poop Apocalypse. Linear extrapolation would have had the streets of New York three stories deep in the stuff by 1930.

  34. David Marjanović says

    lung-damaging additives in gasoline

    Additives? All kinds of products of incomplete combustion damage lungs, no matter what exactly the organic matter is that is burnt.

    Lead compounds as an additive are another story, damaging brains rather than lungs.

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