The crystal ball of cartoon understanding

Today’s Mother Goose and Grimm takes us through the murky realms of cartoon understanding:


At the surface level, the fortune teller offers a preposterous prediction about how Grimm will be reincarnated, and Grimm says he doesn’t believe in reincarnation. Entirely comprehensible (so long as you know about fortune tellers, and can recognize a stereotype of one —  woman in gypsy costume with crystal ball — and so long as you know what reincarnation is), but not funny, unless you also know about Carnation brand evaporated milk (sweetened powdered milk that comes in cans). It’s a joke, son.

Cultural background. The relevant NOAD entries for fortune teller:

noun fortune teller: a person who is supposedly able to predict a person’s future by palmistry, using a crystal ball, or similar methods: he went to a fortune teller to ask for advice.

and reincarnate / reincarnation:

verb reincarnate: [with object] (as believed in some religions and philosophies) cause (someone) to undergo rebirth in another body: a man may be reincarnated in animal form | (as adjective reincarnated):  a reincarnated soul.

noun reincarnation: the rebirth of a soul in a new body.

There are fortune tellers in the real world, and many people who believe in reincarnation, but for most of the audience for the cartoon, these (very complex) sociocultural constructs come to them not through first-hand experience, but from imaginative popular culture; there are, in particular a great many fortune-teller and reincarnation cartoons (in print and in animation) out there.

In any case, understanding the cartoon requires that you  have at least a minimal pop-culture understanding of fortune telling and reincarnation — in itself, a non-trivial accomplishment, but not enough to give you an appreciation of the humor in the cartoon. For that, you need to recognize the the possibility of reanalyzing the word reincarnation

[ [ re + incarnate ] + ion ]

as having the word carnation in it, and then connecting the flower name carnation to the brand name Carnation (which comes in a can with a picture of the flower on it). Groan.

From Wikipedia:

(#2) Modern Carnation: bilingual and vitamin-fortified

Carnation is a brand of food products. The brand was especially known for its evaporated milk product created in 1899, then called Carnation Sterilized Cream and later called Carnation Evaporated Milk. The brand has since been used for other related products including milk-flavoring mixes, flavored beverages, flavor syrups, hot cocoa mixes, instant breakfasts, corn flakes, ice cream novelties, and dog food. Nestlé acquired the Carnation Company in 1985.

Elbridge Amos Stuart (10 September 1856 in Guilford County, North Carolina–14 January 1944 in Los Angeles, California) was an American milk industrialist and creator of Carnation evaporated milk and its famous slogan, that it came from “Contented Cows”.

On 6 September 1899, Stuart and a business partner founded the Pacific Coast Condensed Milk Company in Kent, Washington, and he became its first President (a post he held until 1932, then serving as Chairman from 1932 to 1944). Its product was based on the relatively new process of commercial evaporation of beverages. Stuart believed that there was value in sanitary milk at a time when fresh milk was neither universally available nor always drinkable, and correctly believed that his product would join other staples on grocers’ shelves.

… As sales gradually grew, Stuart sought a brand name for the product. Passing a tobacconist’s window in downtown Seattle, Stuart saw a display of cigars round a sign with the name: Carnation. His own firm subsequently adopted the name Carnation Evaporated Milk Company.

… During the twentieth century, Carnation Evaporated Milk became the subject of humorous, satirical rhymes. One example that may date back to the year 1900 is as follows: Carnation Milk is the best in the land / Here I sit with a can in my hand / No tits to pull, no hay to pitch / You just punch a hole in the son of a bitch.This quatrain, or a variant of it, has often been portrayed by storytellers as the result of a slogan contest or advertising contest sponsored by the Carnation Company, although such a contest never actually occurred.

The rhyme is a 4×4, a quatrain of tetrameter lines. 15 of the 16 feet are straightforwardly end-accented, almost evenly divided between iambs (8 of them) and anapests (7). (The remaining foot, foot 1 of line 2, here, has only one syllable in it.)

(#3) Accentual pattern for the Carnation rhyme; the rhyme scheme is AABB

In any case, a sterling bit of (defiantly crude) folk verse.

2 Responses to “The crystal ball of cartoon understanding”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    And of course it only works because the cartoonist arranged the lettering carefully.

  2. chrishansenhome Says:

    The late Gershon Legman has the Carnation contest verse thus: “No shit to pitch/No tits to twitch/Just punch a hole in the sonuvabitch.” I have found his books “The Rationale of the Dirty Joke” (vols. 1 and 2) invaluable, and it only takes a little twitch from someone to unearth a joke/saying/limerick from Legman in my mind. This is scary.

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