Is Timmy in trouble?

The Wayno/Piraro Bizarro from the 14th shows us Lassie trying to deliver a message about Timmy:

(#1) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 2 in this strip — see this Page.)

Ah, a variant of the Lassie-Timmy cartoon meme. With a play on the senses of be in trouble. From various dictionaries:

(i) ‘in a problematic situation or state of hardship’
(ii) ‘in peril, danger’
(iii) ‘subject to or due for punishment’
(iv) (euph.) ‘pregnant and unmarried’

In the usual cartoon meme, Timmy is in trouble in sense (i) or (ii) — classically, he has fallen down a well — but in #1, it’s sense (iii). I haven’t found an instance of the meme that bends gender to take advantage of sense (iv), but it’s certainly imaginable. (And for a possibility torn from the headlines, if you’re in trouble in sense (iv) and get an abortion, in Alabama you’re now in trouble in sense (iii).)

Digression on sense (iv). The definition ‘pregnant and unmarried’ might once have reflected the nature of pregnancy in American life, but it certainly has not for some time now. There are substantial classes of unmarried women who are become pregnant by choice and see this state as in no way troubling: women in cross-sex partnerships where the partners have chosen not to marry legally, women in same-sex partnerships who do the same (or were not allowed to marry until recently), and women who choose single motherhood. We don’t describe them, no matter how euphemistically, as in trouble.

The definition should read something like (euph.) ‘unmarried and pregnant not by design’.

The locus of sense differences. Idioms dictionaries seem to be inclined to take the predicative  PP in trouble — combining a metaphorical  use of the P in of physical location with the abstract object N trouble — as the unit that is assigned different senses, dictionaries in general locate the differences in the N alone. As in NOAD‘s treatment (where I’ve boldfaced the occurrences of predicative in trouble in the examples).

noun trouble: 1 [a] difficulty or problems: I had trouble finding somewhere to park | friends should support each other when they are in trouble the government’s policies ran into trouble | our troubles are just beginning. [b] the malfunction of something such as a machine or a part of the body: their helicopter developed engine trouble. [c] effort or exertion made to do something, especially when inconvenient: I wouldn’t want to put you to any trouble | he’s gone to a lot of trouble to help you. [d] a cause of worry or inconvenience: the kid had been no trouble up to now. [e] a particular aspect or quality of something regarded as unsatisfactory or as a source of difficulty: that’s the trouble with capitalism. [f] a situation in which one is liable to incur punishment or blame: he’s been in trouble with the police. [g] informal, dated used to refer to the condition of a pregnant unmarried woman: she’s not the first girl who’s gotten herself into trouble. 2 public unrest or disorder: the cops are preparing for trouble by bringing in tear gas.

(Note: other things being equal, if you have a metaphorical use of a locative expression in X, you get, for free, a metaphorical use of the corresponding motional expression in(to) X: be in trouble gets you get in(to) trouble) — so those examples in the NOAD entry are also relevant here.)

The crucial involvement of the P in in these matters is clear from the examples for NOAD‘s sense a ‘difficulty, problems’ (note the nice close relationship between the M noun difficulty and the C noun problem, as PL problems or SG a problem): substituting difficulty or problems / a problem for trouble in the the first, third, and fourth examples is unproblematic, but things are rockier for the second:

1st: I had trouble / difficulty / problems / a problem finding …

3rd: … policies ran into trouble / difficulty / problems / a problem

4th: our troubles / difficulties / problems are just beginning

BUT 2nd: … when they are in trouble / ?difficulty / *problems / *a problem

are in difficulty — which I find comprehensible but awkward at best — does occur, but (in the Google Ngram statistics) at a tiny fraction of the frequency of are in trouble, and the are in difficulty cites seem to be primarily in legal, legislative, and other hyper-formal contexts (where, presumably, some people find in trouble to be too conversational or informal).

The point is that the appropriate lexicographic unit here is the PP in trouble, not just the N trouble.

Senses (i) through (iii). NOAD doesn’t distinguish (i) and (ii), but clearly sets these apart from (iii); it’s the contrast between (i)/(ii) and (iii) that makes the cartoon in #1 funny. Timmy down the well is experiencing problems and hardship and appreciates that he is in danger (of his life) — “Help me, Lassie! Get help!” — but Timmy on the lam from the law is quite another thing, and it’s not clear that Lassie could get any useful help.

In addition, (i)/(ii) and (iii) have different preferred argument structures. (i)/(ii) typically occur without a complement, while (iii) can have a complement PP in with referring to the authority whose laws or rules might have been violated: Timmy is in trouble with his parents / the local police / etc.

OED2 on the noun  trouble clearly sets (iii) aside:

5. In various other special applications, euphemistic, colloquial, dialectal, or vulgar.

Unpleasant relations with the authorities, esp. such as involve arrest, summons before a magistrate, imprisonment, or punishment; e.g. to bring oneself into trouble, to get into troubleto be in trouble, to be in gaol (slang). Also to ask for trouble ... Similarly, to look for (or seek) trouble. [1st cite 1560 for in trouble; 1901 looking for trouble, 1905 seeking trouble; a1915 get into trouble]

Said of the condition of an unmarried woman with child. [1st cite 1891 Thomas Hardy, Tess]

The line between (i) and (ii) is less clear, and it’s probably best to view them as merely differing in whether an element of danger or peril is present. Certainly, in trouble doesn’t seem to share argument structures with in danger / peril / jeopardy: the latter easily occur with a complement PP in of referring to the end-state of the dangerous situation, but the former does not: Timmy was in danger / peril / *trouble of death, Timmy was in jeopardy / *trouble of failing the 6th grade.

The tv Lassie story. From Wikipedia:

Lassie is an American television series that follows the adventures of a female Rough Collie dog named Lassie and her companions, both human and animal. The show was the creation of producer Robert Maxwell and animal trainer Rudd Weatherwax and was televised from September 12, 1954, to March 25, 1973. The fifth longest-running U.S. primetime television series, … the show chalked up 17 seasons on CBS before entering first-run syndication for its final two seasons. Initially filmed in black and white, the show transitioned to color in 1965.

The show’s first 10 seasons follow Lassie’s adventures in a small farming community. Fictional eleven-year-old Jeff Miller, his mother, and his grandfather are Lassie’s first human companions until seven-year-old Timmy Martin and his adoptive parents take over in the fourth season. When Lassie’s exploits on the farm end in the eleventh season, she finds new adventures in the wilderness alongside United States Forest Service Rangers. After traveling on her own for a year, Lassie finally settles at a children’s home for her final two syndicated seasons.

(#2) The cast I remember best: Timmy Martin (played by Jon Provost), his parents (played by Hugh Reilly and June Lockhart), and Lassie

… Plots during the first ten “boy and his dog” seasons were similar: the boy (Jeff or Timmy) got into some sort of trouble. Lassie then dashed off to get help or rushed in to save her master’s life herself. After being reunited with family and breathing a sigh of relief, the boy received a light lecture on why he should not have done what he had done. In 2004, June Lockhart described the show as “…a fairy tale about people on a farm in which the dog solves all the problems in 22 minutes, in time for the last commercial.”

As for Jon Provost — “Jonathan Bion “Jon” Provost (born March 12, 1950) is an American actor, best known for his role as young Timmy Martin in the CBS series Lassie.” (Wikipedia) — his 2007 memoir is entitled Timmy’s in the Well: The Jon Provost Story.

The Timmy-Lassie cartoon meme. A wonderfully rich vein of cartoons. I posted a Danny Shanahan on this blog back in 2012:

(#3) Turning on the ambiguity of get help; what’s Lassie supposed to do?

Here are six more, illustrating a variety of approaches. Three on the message Lassie is trying to communicate:

(#4) Mike Jacobsen: Lassie uses a visual aid to convey a relatively simple message

(#5) Tom Cheney: Lassie uses a visual aid to convey a very complex message

(#6) Harry Bliss: Lassie’s interlocutor devises his own very complex message

Then two interlocutors struggling to understand Lassie’s message:

(#7) Moose Allain’s World of Moose: simple perplexity

(#8) Doug Savage’s Savage Chickens: misunderstood message, Lassie barked hell, not well, dammit

Finally, a meta-cartoon, Lassie complaining about her job taking care of Timmy:

(#9) Mark Anderson’s Andertoon: Timmy and the well

[Late entry, another meta-cartoon, this time from Adrian Raeside:


One Response to “Is Timmy in trouble?”

  1. [BLOG] Some Tuesday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky takes apart, linguistically and otherwise, a comic playing on the trope of Lassie warning about something […]

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