You don’t wanna know what the tree yells.

Dear Word Detective: When a lumberjack chops down a tree, does he yell “Timber!” or “Timbre!”? Either one makes sense: he is creating timber, but he wants to send an alarm that a tree is falling (“timbre” means “bell” or “alarm” in Spanish). — David Towne.

So near and yet so far. I sense that there’s the basis of a good joke in there, but I can’t quite make it out. It would probably work better as the caption of a New Yorker cartoon, anyway, perhaps something about a symphony conductor and a fainting violin section.

The short answer to your question (my ride is honking out front) is that lumberjacks shout “Timber!” to warn anyone in the vicinity that a big tree is on its way down. I suppose that people cutting down trees have shouted some kind of warning for thousands of years, but the cry “Timber!” in particular must be of relatively recent vintage, because the earliest occurrence of this particular use of the word found in print (so far) was in 1912 (“Timber-r-r! the long-drawn melodious warning call of the sawyers in a lumber camp when a tree is about to fall,” Western Canadian Dictionary). “Sawyer,” incidentally, is an old (14th century) word for a worker who saws timber, although in the US it also has been used to mean uprooted trees floating down a river (and posing a hazard to navigation).

“Timber” and “timbre,” despite their resemblance, are, of course, completely separate, unrelated words. We inherited “timber” from Old English, where it had arrived from old Germanic roots carrying the sense of “wooden dwelling,” and in English “timber” originally meant simply “building.” From there it took on the meaning of “building materials” and then simply “wood, logs or lumber,” especially for building structures. Eventually “timber” was also used to mean a large beam in a building or the major structural parts of a wooden ship’s hull (as in the stereotypical old salt’s phrase “Shiver me timbers!”). Along the way, “timber” also came to be used to mean the trees grown for the production of timber (“We continued our journey … through a forest of grand timber,” 1880), which explains the logic of the lumberjack’s warning cry. Simply shouting “Tree!” probably wouldn’t be as effective.

“Timbre” (which is usually pronounced “tam-ber,” although “tim-ber” and “tim-bruh” are also common) means the character or quality of a voice or musical sound produced by its various harmonic overtones; the “color” of a vocal or musical sound. We adopted “timbre” from French in the mid-19th century, where the word had previously meant both “bell” and “sound of a bell,” and, even earlier “small drum.” Back then, a “timbre” or “timbrel” was a small hand-held percussion instrument known today as a “tambourine” (which is itself related to “timbre”). Yet further back, this whole little circus is related to the Greek “tympanon,” which gave us “tympanum,” what we today know as the “kettledrum” in an orchestra.

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