Timber and timbre are two similar-looking words that appear in very different contexts. At least most of the time.
Timber traces back to an Old English word initially meaning “house” or “building” that also came to mean “building material,” “wood,” and “trees” or “woods.” Timbers are large squared lengths of wood used for building a house or a boat. In British English, timber is also used as a synonym for lumber.
Metaphorical senses followed after centuries of the word’s use: the word used for building material became a word meaning “material” or “stuff” in general (“it’s best-seller timber”) and came also to refer to the qualities of character, experience, or intellect (“managerial timber”).
And, of course, there’s also the interjectional use of “timber!” as a cry to warn of a falling tree; the fact that most people know this despite few of them ever having deployed the word in such a situation is almost certainly due to cartoons.
Timbre is French in origin, which is apparent in its pronunciation: it is often pronounced \TAM-ber\ and, with a more French-influenced second syllable, \TAM-bruh\. The French ancestor of timbre was borrowed at three different times into English, each time with a different meaning, each time reflecting the evolution that the word had made in French.
The first two meanings timbre had in English (it referred to a kind of drum and to the crest on a coat of arms) are now too obscure for entry in this dictionary, but its third meaning survives. Timbre in modern English generally refers to the quality of a sound made by a particular voice or musical instrument; timbre is useful in being distinct from pitch, intensity, and loudness as a descriptor of sound.
But because English is rarely simple about such things, we have also these facts: timber is listed as a variant spelling of timbre. And timbre may also be correctly pronounced just like timber as \TIM-ber\. And the spelling of timber was unsettled for many years; it was sometimes spelled tymmer, tymber, and, yes, timbre. The messy overlapping of these similar words is coincidental: the consequence of the intersection of the different cultures and languages that left their traces on English.
upon our approach the deer disappeared back into the timber from whence it had come
needed a new load of timber to finish building the house
Recent Examples on the Web
The Colonial-style building was put together from old timbers and fitted with pews taken from a church; the acoustics are superb, combining warmth with clarity and transparency of sound, transmitted to every seat in the house.—Jeremy Yudkin, BostonGlobe.com, 11 Sep. 2023 That kind of talk leaves some federal forest managers and timber industry advocates quietly seething.—Louis Sahagún, Los Angeles Times, 30 Aug. 2023 Head to the barns — which are covered in timber reclaimed from the old Tappan Zee Bridge Hudson River crossing — for a fitness or yoga class, or to use the gym and sauna.—Stephanie Rosenbloom, New York Times, 25 Aug. 2023 The city’s establishment as a hub for cotton and timber production is featured, but that it was powered by a large population of enslaved people, nearly 40 percent of the county’s population in 1860, is not mentioned.—Emmanuel Felton, Washington Post, 21 Aug. 2023 The structure includes a timber crib foundation and concrete pier that support a concrete one-story machine room and a three-story octagonal steel tower topped with a circular lantern.—Frank Witsil, Detroit Free Press, 7 Aug. 2023 Hiers, who grows timber and pecans on 3,000 acres in Brooks County, estimates about 5,000 of his pecan trees, a quarter of the total on his farm, were knocked down by the storm.—Drew Kann, ajc, 1 Sep. 2023 The site where Stallworth and Gentry discovered the whale skull was on a swath of land owned by the teenager’s family for timber.—Carlyn Kranking, Smithsonian Magazine, 31 Aug. 2023 Wagner's thousands of operatives and dozens of shell companies were also involved in other industries, including timber, beer and vodka, logistics and entertainment.—Compiled By Democrat-Gazette Stafffrom Wire Reports, Arkansas Online, 26 Aug. 2023
Permanent carbon forests must remain planted with trees, and timber forestry that earns carbon credits is required to replant trees after they are harvested — typically at Year 28 — or face a financial penalty.—Serena Solomon, New York Times, 11 Aug. 2022 The future acting great was born Angela Brigid Lansbury on Oct. 16, 1925, in London, the daughter of actor Moyna Macgill and timber executive Edgar Lansbury.—David K. Li, NBC News, 11 Oct. 2022 Sales of construction and timber harvesting equipment climbed 8% as profit increased by 11%.—Bob Tita and Connor Hart, WSJ, 19 Aug. 2022 That determines whether the state maintains its Forest Stewardship Council certification, which makes Wisconsin timber sales more competitive.—Tanka Dhakal, Journal Sentinel, 5 Sep. 2022 The Arts & Crafts style interior features dark brown wood floors, timber joinery and bench-tops and tons of thoughtful touches.—Abby Montanez, Robb Report, 3 Aug. 2022 Brick and timber low-rise buildings with ample natural light, garden space, high ceilings, ease of ingress and egress and amenities including gyms and dog parks are in.—Hadley Meares, The Hollywood Reporter, 7 June 2022 As the trees grew, the family leased the land to timber companies, generating enough money to pay property taxes and cover some college costs.—Richard Rubin, WSJ, 2 May 2022 Unlike the previous government, the Taliban have not supplied engineers to monitor toxic gas, or timber to support tunnels that stretch for hundreds of yards.—New York Times, 29 Mar. 2022 See More
These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'timber.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.
Middle English, from Old English, building, wood; akin to Old High German zimbar wood, room, Greek demein to build, domos course of stones or bricks
First Known Use
before the 12th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1a
before the 12th century, in the meaning defined above
The first known use of timber was
before the 12th century