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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. emprunté au grec byzantin /timbanon /(...) du grec
classique /tumpanon /"tambourin", (...) étant associé aux cultes
orgiaques de Cybèle et de Dyonisos, le mot serait d'origine
sémitique.(...) /Tympanum,/ d'où viennent la forme héritée disparue
/tympe /(v.1155) et l'emprunt /tympan. /(...)/ Timbre /s'est
progressivement éloigné de son sens d'emprunt /tambour de basque /propre
à l'ancien français; il s'appliquait à la cloche immobile que l'on
frappait avec un marteau (1374), qui est à l'origine du sens
métaphorique de "tête" (v.1450). De cette valeur procède la locution
/avoir le timbre fêlé. /(1606). De nos jours, le mot au sens concret
désigne une calotte de métal qui, frappée par un marteau ou un vibreur,
sert de sonnette (1858). Par métonymie, il désigne la qualité de
sonorité d'un timbre (1762; 1740, "son d'un timbre" et, plus
généralement, d'un instrument donné, valeur importante en musique./ /Il
est employé aussi en phonétique (1926; /timbre d'une voyelle/)./ Timbre
/a eu un autre développement sémantique fondé sur une analogie de forme
avec le tambour ou la cloche nommée /timbre /au moyen âge. (...)

Rey, Alain, /Dictionnaire historique de la langue française. /Éditions
LeRobert: Paris, 1998 (1992). Tome 3.


beaucham a écrit :

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: jwbeauch@uiuc.edu (also: beaucham@manfred.music.uiuc.edu)
phone: +1-217-344-3307 (also: 217-244-1207 and 217-333-3691)
fax: +1-217-344-3723 (also: 217-244-4585)
WWW:  http://ems.music.uiuc.edu/beaucham