We all know the scene: a burly bearded man swings his double-bit axe at a large pine, hacking away at the trunk until it begins to crack. Slowly, the tree begins to lean. The satisfied lumberjack lays his axe down, cups his hands around his mouth and yells as loud as he can: TIMBER! The Paul-Bunyan-like scene is as quintessential to the outdoors as campfires and fishing in the early morning sun. But why exactly did lumberjacks yell “timber” anyway? While practices certainly differed between crews, “timber” represented a standardized and highly-recognizable way to warn others in the vicinity of the falling tree. To this day, logging is the most dangerous job in the US. Back in the days of lumberjacks, it was even more dangerous. Yelling “timber” was a small safety precaution taken to reduce that danger, even if only a little bit.
Why Do They Yell “Timber” and Not “Watch Out?”
It may seem to make more sense to yell “Watch out,” but yelling such generic warnings, could lead to confusion. Consider for a moment the vast number of terms that could be sensibly used as a warning: Watch out, look out, incoming, etc. If these terms are used interchangeably, the meaning is not immediately recognizable. Moreover, all these terms could be used in different contexts, such as by someone throwing a chain over a sled of logs. To be effective, the meaning of a warning should be IMMEDIATELY recognizable, as there is not much time to react to a falling tree. By yelling a specific term that everyone used and knew the meaning of, lumberjacks could better communicate the danger to others on the crew. For this reason, lumberjacks chose to yell “timber” to warn their crewmates of falling trees.
That said, especially in early American history, loggers on the frontier were often French, German, Swedish, and more. In fact, one of the most famous figures in forestry history, Frederick Weyerhaeuser, was a German immigrant. If only because of the great diversity of logging camps along the frontier, there were likely several terms that lumberjacks used, but it is reasonable to assume each crew had their standardized code.
Do Lumberjacks Still Shout “Timber?”
While I have no doubt some lumberjacks still shout timber for fun, it is by no means a standard practice. In fact, it is pretty useless. Chainsaws are loud machines, and so most loggers where some form of hearing protection to buffer the sound. Between wearing earmuffs and running machinery, it is difficult if not impossible to warn others from any distance. Luckily, they don’t really need to warn anyone.
Unlike the days of lumberjacks, axes, and cross-cut saws when even moving a single log was a multi-man proposition, the modern logger has enough equipment to work alone. Don’t get me wrong, logging is still a team-based industry with crews full of logging equipment that serves different functions, but each function is essentially a solitary function. One man can cut a tree, and one man can move the tree. Thus, for safety reasons, modern loggers tend to work farther apart. In most cases, there really is no need to yell “Timber!” Leave that to Ke$ha…