50 years ago in The New Yorker: October 1972

Cartoons in The New Yorker are famously obscure. Time passing may further obscure them, but also provide a patina of remembrance. With this in mind, I present a selection from October, 1972.

How is this different from what I did for decades — stand on a train platform, waiting for the morning train to the city?

Now that we can use Google to investigate our symptoms, is this worse?

No clue.


  1. When commuters wait at a train or subway station, they can lean back, because they know exactly when the train is coming. These two elderly individuals are waiting at an even more elderly station (which seems like it might have been drawn by Addams, even though it wasn’t). When reading the train schedule at that station, it would seem more appropriate to use a calendar (and not a clock), but even so, they are eagerly craning their necks, looking for their train, which might as well arrive there next week.

    P.S. The third one seems to be the joyous (marital) reconciliation between the not-so-big bad wolf and one of the three (no longer) little piggies.

  2. The station is in a state of disrepair. I think it’s long closed down and there are no trains coming. Why that’s funny, I don’t know.

    Have you got the actual issue, or just the cartoons. Maybe it goes with a particular article or story and makes sense in context.

  3. @ Pete – In all the years that I leafed through my parents’ New Yorkers to read the comics (and on rare occasions an article or two), I don’t think I ever saw a comic that was thematically attached to the surrounding text. I’m not saying that it never happened, but even if it did, it could have been random synchronicity, rather than intentional editorial direction.

  4. I thought that the elderly couple were waiting for a train which, judging by the state of the tracks, will never come. While waiting they are looking into the sky at passing planes which are the reason that that train won’t be coming.

  5. Hm, now that you mention it, the station does look abandoned. But the tracks themselves appear to be in good repair. No missing or broken ties, and the rails are quite straight.

  6. I liked the first one, there are all kinds of subtle signs to indicate what is going on: the couple is elderly, so maybe haven’t been keeping track of recent developments; the station is old and run down, and while this might be the regular state of affairs for us born into this era, I think for then it was new and shocking that a reliable bedrock institution like the trains could be left to wither so quickly; the grass growing between the rails (though as Powers points out, the tracks should be in more disrepair — I guess there wasn’t as much experience then with what we just take as the state of affairs now); there’s a gas pump in the background, leading you to thoughts of why the train has been abandoned (although looking at it again, that is a rather old-looking gas pump — would it have read as antique in 1972 as well?)

    I feel more and more like the couple depicted, BTW. (Geezer tag!)

  7. There’s also a gas station in the near distance just behind the train station, which perhaps symbolically suggests another reason for this train apparently being defunct (too many people switched over to driving their own cars rather than using the railway).

    The last time I was on a train was in 1981, and that was during a trip to Australia, so I can’t claim to be doing my part in keeping American rails economically healthy either.

  8. I can’t speak to the first one, having grown up in the Northwest, which lacks anything like the NE’s systerm of commuter railways. But the third on is clearly MIss Piggy with her first husband, Rowlf the dog.

  9. I also found it mildly amusing that none of these three comics work at all with the “stereotypical” New Yorker caption (CWAA).

  10. @Pete: I just have the cartoons, not the actual issue, but as Kilby points out it would be very unusual for the cartoon to have a relationship to the nearby story.

  11. I was not able to find the Steig drawing at the Conde Nast store, but a comparison with his other (similar) drawings seems to indicate that the title would be unlikely to reveal the “meaning” of the drawing. A general Internet image search also produced no matches. I’m sure that I would be able to find it on the CDs included with the complete collection of New Yorker cartoons, but the PDFs offer only the images, and do not apply any titles.

  12. I submit that the railway cartoon is a commentary on the changing times as they were half a century ago. After a century or so as the main means of travel, inter-city trains were in steep decline, in the USA and Canada particularly. This couple are waiting for the train they have always taken, but may never see again. Passenger trains are still with us, but they ain’t what they used to be.

  13. I think the good doctor is guilty of unintentional irony. To know beans about something is the same as not knowing beans about it, a peculiarity of idiomatic English.

  14. @Ooten Aboot, yep, I remember learning about (and misusing*) NPIs (Negative Polarity Items) in the Syntax I course. The first thing about them is to note that the name is not quite accurate, as they can occur in other expressive contexts, such as exclamations and imperatives, and some conditionals. “You’ll be in big trouble if you budge an inch!”

    The second thing to correct about our characterization of NPIs is that diachronically (historically) an NPI expression can lose much of its polarity and become normal in affirmative contexts, after enough people use it that way, violating the constraint knowingly, for effect. A politician — “He is one congressman who genuinely gives a damn!”. [Younger readers may not know that “give a damn” was not too long ago a strict NPI.]

    In this case, I think “know beans about smthg” was still, in 1972, pretty much a strict NPI, and you are right that the doctor is just casually making a gaffe. Or better, it shows that “do so / do too” emphasis is an emotive/expressive context good enough to cover an NPI.

  15. [*] The misuse was that we were a Generative Semantics department, and an NPI test could be trotted out to find that some not-overtly-marked-negative words had to have a NEG somewhere in the logical representation to govern NPI restriction. So for instance DOUBT should be represented as NOT BELIEVE (in some way), because of acceptability judgements on sentences like “I doubt that you will budge an inch”. Or indeed “I doubt that you know beans about osteoarthritis.”

  16. As a cartoon, I took the gas pump , train and searching look (with traveling bags) as a 2+1 – past, present, and unknown future. A geezer fortune cookie and grist for many a 70’s country song. Waylon, Willie, Merle er al.

  17. I agree with the consensus about the first one. The station is closed. As Steve Goodman sang “this train has the disappearing railroad blues.” I think they want to go on vacation, given that their bags look big enough.
    The second is interesting in that it predates the current trend of a patient lecturing the doctor because they looked it up on the internet.
    As for the third, few single panel Steig cartoons make a lot of sense.

  18. I think Ooten Aboot describes the first comic pretty well. The era from the 1950s to the 1980s (or so) was a dark one for passenger train travel. Railroads were abandoning the passenger train business in droves in favor of freight haulage, and even then those railroads ended up consolidating. AMTRAK was formed from a patchwork of aging cast-off rolling stock and locomotives to try to provide a national network of passenger service. Thankfully, things are much better today. So the comic does seem to be a wry slice of life commentary. Some old depots have been restored by their communities over the years, while many were lost to neglect.

    The gas station in the background of the comic was mentioned. Interestingly, the pump is of a type that was old-fashioned even by 1970s standards. Also, a gasoline crisis will be looming in 1973. History is fun!

  19. The problem with the third cartoon is the crudeness of the drawing. I went through both suggestions myself. First, “Big Bad Wolf and Pig get married.” Then I wondered what he was holding, it looked kind of like pan pipes, is that supposed to be Pan? Are those hooves or paws? If it is Pan, what does the pig have to do with it? I settled on the first interpretation.

  20. Amtrak launched in 1971, a subsidized comeback for passenger trains in America. This could be a comment on that, with the older couple assuming everything — including the long-gone local service — is back. A very loose equivalent might be elderly fan boys in costume queueing up at a box office upon the announcement of a new Star Wars film.
    Like Saul Steinberg, William Steig evolved away from hard gags to idiosyncratic illustration. Where Steinberg was often metaphysical, Steig focused on increasingly scrawly people. Here we have not animals, but a satyr with pan pipes considering a pretty old-fashioned miss, who may or may not be aware of him but seems prepared for straw-hatted suitors. The combination is mildly comic, combining cheerful symbols of lechery and propriety, and perhaps a musing on the roles man and woman assume — or used to assume — in the mating dance.

  21. @ Scott – “few single panel Steig cartoons make a lot of sense
    The Steig archive at Conde Nast seems to contain three completely separate categories: first, cover art (mostly paintings); then (older) shaded comic drawings, almost always containing a caption; and last, bare pen and ink drawings, often with no caption or title at all. While “makes no sense” definitely does apply to many (if not most) of the latter category, Steig’s older captioned work was much easier to understand. I cannot speak for the covers, since the first step I took in my search for the “wolf & pig” drawing was to filter out the paintings.

  22. @Powers, sorry I didn’t make it clear my comment was a followup, mostly in agreement, to Ooten Aboot’s comment on the doctor in the cartoon saying “I do too know beans about r.a.”. There is something a little wrong with saying that; or maybe not finally wrong but surprising or striking because it is at the first take wrong.

    Ooten locates the problem as a matter of the meaning inherent in “know beans” – that the phrase itself supplies a negative, and means something like “knows little or nothing”. I was in agreement that something like that is what makes us feel initially that the doctor is saying something odd or wrong — which of course is the source of the humor. My alternate formulation is that the phrase “know beans” does indeed have a special relationship to negation – but where Ooten’s approach was to say the phrase brings its own negation, mine was to say it needs to be in a context that contains a negation. In the jargon of 1970s or 1980s linguistics, this is to say it’s a member of a set of such phrases known as Negative Polarity Items, or NPIs.

    For example “budge an inch” was a common example of English NPI. Do you agree that it’s perfectly normal to say 1 “The whole time we were waiting, he didn’t budge an inch” but at least a little off to say 2 “I think he just now budged an inch”? With a lot more examples, we might draw a conclusion that the key difference is that 1 provides a negative context but 2 does not.

    Now, noticing this generalization and coining a name for it is an okay exercise, but just a cute toy, as it were. But then some linguists turned it into a useful, if specialized, tool. A phrase you’ve already decided is a good NPI can serve to bring to light some “hidden negation”. If we note “I doubt he knows beans about that disease” is okay, we could be puzzled about what licenses the NPI “know beans”. There is no overt “not” or “doesn’t”. So maybe it is that “doubt” is hiding a negation.

  23. “I do know beans about it” recalls a gag on “Cheers”. A snobbish rival says Woody is not as dumb as he looks. This leads to a scuffle; when Woody is pulled away he says something like, “He insulted me. He said I’m not as dumb as I look.” — as if negating his dumbness was the offense.

  24. The old F Troop joke:

    O’Rourke: Agarn, I don’t know everyone says you’re so dumb.
    Cut to later scene
    Agarn: Who says I’m dumb!

  25. Vaguely remembered from an old movie:
    He: “You don’t have the morals of an alley cat!”
    She: “My last boyfriend told me I DID have the morals of an alley cat.”

  26. larK says I could care less.

    I wouldn’t know how to document this, but I’ve all along had the theory this had to develop in casual speech via a collision of irony or sarcasm, with a perhaps brief but real stage where speakers would put some sort of “As if…” or “Do you really think…?” ahead of the previously standard (and intuitively more logical) form with “couldn’t”.

  27. “I could care less” has been in common use for at least 50 years. A lot of people haven’t even heard “I couldn’t care less.”

    Another weird one in common use, at least in New England, is “so don’t I” for “so do I.” Like, “If I can do it, so can’t you.” Or, “He goes to church every Sunday and so don’t I” meaning we both go to church every Sunday.

  28. Steve Goodman wrote it . . .

    Lots of versions on YT, including discussion of how he came to write it.
    For the Chicago folks who remember Old Town, The Midnight Special on WFMT, the Earl of Old Town, etc . . .

  29. Mark in Boston says “I could care less” has been in common use for at least 50 years. A lot of people haven’t even heard “I couldn’t care less.”

    Yes, and of course that’s as it should be – that’s how a change gets cemented in to the language, later/younger speakers only have the newer versions of something. In their individual lexicons the older forms are only there as curiosities the geezers keep going on and on about. But that doesn’t invalidate the “historical” account I gave, as the individual experience of the derivation over time.

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