Posted 2009, updated 2021.
The joke "Timber" is one of classic jokes in Deaf culture. It has been told many times from generations to generations through Deaf schools, Deaf families, and Deaf community across North America. Now it's shared with hearing students in ASL beginners course.
It's one of some great choices for hearing students to learn and practice ASL. Although, as I remind the students on cultural appropriation, this joke and other Deaf jokes are to be told by Deaf people only based on their Deaf humor, experience, history, and heritage. It's not appropriate for hearing individuals to tell this joke themselves other than practice in the class.
On an additional note (January 2021), I watched the video (2007?) below for the first time in a decade or so and I was surprised to see a different version (specifically, Deaf timberman) from the "Timber" version in the Signing Naturally textbook!
Clearly, I created this version based on a memory I had from watching my Deaf teacher Sue Bailey in my junior school year at Deaf school. After ten+ years of teaching ASL beginners course and showing the version of the Signing Naturally, I eventually completely forgot the other version until I watched my video. How precious to preserve a variation! No doubt, there must be detail variations across the generations and North America, but the core remainds the same.
A timber man in the woods cut a tree one by one. He yelled "timber" each time before the tree fell down. Then he came upon a tree that did not respond to the sound "timber". He tried again and again. In desperation, he called a tree doctor to come and inspect. The doctor found that the tree was Deaf. The timberman contemplated what to do and got the idea. He called the Deaf timberman for advice. The Deaf timberman said, "No problem. What you need to do is to fingerspell 'timber'." As he fingerspelled "timber", the tree fell down.
In my class, first the students practiced the story with guide and learned grammar. Then, they practiced on their own in pairs or trios. As always I encouraged them to be creative with details when they retold the story for practice to improve their expressive skill and vocabulary.
At the end of the exercise, I asked them to share with the class what details they have twisted. One switched from a timberman to a timberwoman. How did you describe the timberwoman's attire? (They had learned some vocabulary of clothes and colors in the past classes so I was checking.) One male student said the timberman had a beer for the lunch break. Another, it was raining. Another student was ♪♬ singing♬ '♪ timber♪ ♫' instead of screaming. Few others went crazy with imgaination such as a tree with the beard and the timberman with a duck pet.
Q: "I was looking for information on the Deaf joke "Timber", specifically its origin, and how it was spread around?" -- Source.
A: Oral storytelling has been one of the natural occurrences in Deaf culture that stories have been passed on from generation to generation, especially long before the Internet days. Before the Internet emerged in the 1990s, I had heard this classic joke and several other jokes from my Deaf teacher, Sue C. Bailey (1949-2016), at a school for the Deaf when I was kid. In turn, Sue once told me she heard this joke from her Deaf father many years before. So, this joke must be as old as over 100 years old! So, there seems to be no record of its origin. In my generation, this joke was well-known in close-knit Deaf community across North America through Deaf schools and Deaf clubs.
See a joke: Birds on the Telephone Lines
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