The word timbre: origins (fwd)

Subject: The word timbre: origins (fwd)
From: Kevin Austin (
Date: Tue Sep 28 2004 - 00:25:28 EDT

This came up a while ago.




Date: Tue, 28 Sep 2004 13:46:46 +1000
From: Harvey Holmes <H.Holmes@UNSW.EDU.AU>
Subject: Re: origin of 'timbre'

I would like to add a little about the evolution of the word in
English. My source is the (full) Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the
authoritative etymological dictionary in English, which has several
entries for 'timbre'. My brief summary of the OED material (OUP, 1971
edition) follows.

The OED traces the roots to Greek and Latin words, as mentioned below
by Claire, but it entered English with different meanings at several
different times through the Old French 'timbre'. It was first used
in English the 12th century to mean a sort of kettledrum (translating
the biblical Latin 'tympanum'), and later also to mean a tambourine
and various types of bells (14th century). Various other derivative
meanings arose in the middle ages (including a weight(?), a helmet or
skull cap, a heraldic crest, etc.).

The modern meaning apparently arose only in the 19th century
(Charlotte Bronte and later), first meaning 'sound of a bell', then
'sonorous quality of any instrument or of a voice', and finally
(1853) 'character or quality of a sound [as distinct from its pitch
or intensity]', which is equivalent to the German 'Klangfarbe',
essentially its current meaning.

          Harvey Holmes

At 23:36 27/09/2004, you wrote:

>Hello Jim
>here is some cues so you can follow parts of the evolution of the word.
>TIMBRE : n.m. emprunte au grec byzantin /timbanon /(...) du grec
>classique /tumpanon /"tambourin", (...) etant associe aux cultes
>orgiaques de Cyb=E8le et de Dyonisos, le mot serait d'origine
>s=E9mitique.(...) /Tympanum,/ d'o=F9 viennent la forme h=E9ritee disparue
>/tympe /(v.1155) et l'emprunt /tympan. /(...)/ Timbre /s'est
>progressivement eloigne de son sens d'emprunt /tambour de basque=
>=E0 l'ancien fran=E7ais; il s'appliquait a la cloche immobile que l'on
>frappait avec un marteau (1374), qui est a l'origine du sens
>metaphorique de "t=EAte" (v.1450). De cette valeur proc=E8de la locution
>/avoir le timbre f=EAle. /(1606). De nos jours, le mot au sens concret
>d=E9signe une calotte de metal qui, frapp=E9e par un marteau ou un=
>sert de sonnette (1858). Par metonymie, il d=E9signe la qualit=E9 de
>sonorit=E9 d'un timbre (1762; 1740, "son d'un timbre" et, plus
>generalement, d'un instrument donne, valeur importante en musique./=
>est employe aussi en phonetique (1926; /timbre d'une voyelle/)./ Timbre
>/a eu un autre d=E9veloppement semantique fonde sur une analogie de=
>avec le tambour ou la cloche nomm=E9e /timbre /au moyen ege. (...)
>Rey, Alain, /Dictionnaire historique de la langue francaise. /editions
>LeRobert: Paris, 1998 (1992). Tome 3.
>beaucham a =E9crit :
>>I would like to have a good historical reference for the word
>>"timbre". One book (Helmholtz's Sensations of Tone) says it
>>was the original word for timpani. Another source says "a sort
>>of drum with stretched strings". A dictionary says both "bell
>>struck by a hammer" and "tymbanon kettledrum". Is there a
>>good source that discusses the original meaning of the word
>>and how it came to take on its modern meaning?
>>James W. Beauchamp
>>Professor Emeritus of Music and Electrical & Computer Engineering
>>University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
>>2136 Music Bldg. MC-056
>>1114 W. Nevada, Urbana, IL 61801 USA
>>email: (also:
>>phone: +1-217-344-3307 (also: 217-244-1207 and 217-333-3691)
>>fax: +1-217-344-3723 (also: 217-244-4585)


End of AUDITORY Digest - 26 Sep 2004 to 27 Sep 2004 (#2004-201)

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