timbre

noun
tim·​bre | \ ˈtam-bər How to pronounce timbre (audio) , ˈtim-; ˈtam(brᵊ) \
variants: or less commonly timber

Definition of timbre

: the quality given to a sound by its overtones: such as
a : the resonance by which the ear recognizes and identifies a voiced speech sound
b : the quality of tone distinctive of a particular singing voice or musical instrument

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Other Words from timbre

timbral \ ˈtam-​brəl How to pronounce timbre (audio) , ˈtim-​ \ adjective

Timber and Timbre

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.

Examples of timbre in a Sentence

the timbre of his voice
Recent Examples on the Web The pipes, played with four mallets by Sam Bacco, add their own timbre, less solid-sounding than other percussion, and contributed to the work’s energy. Matthew J. Palm, orlandosentinel.com, "Disney stars, Hubble’s stars light up musical weekend | Reviews," 21 Mar. 2021 The sequences with Sergio and his dogs are different in pace and timbre to the rest: Amid so much meditation, his stuff hits like an action movie interrupting a Tarkovsky. Helen Shaw, Vulture, "The Truffle Hunters Heads for the Hills and Returns With a Feast for the Senses," 3 Mar. 2021 The timbre of the phone call, in audio excerpts published on the Post’s website, was in line with that Twitter exchange. Laura King, Los Angeles Times, "‘Find’ winning votes for him, Trump demands in taped call with Georgia official," 3 Jan. 2021 Depending on the listener, the cadence and timbre of the narrator's voice can make or break the story. Mary Cadden, USA TODAY, "Exclusive video: Top audiobook narrators read 'The Night Before Christmas'," 11 Dec. 2020 Margaret Thatcher's Voice Thatcher's distinctive timbre is often traced back to elocution lessons that the Conservative Party leader received during the middle of her career. Caroline Picard, Good Housekeeping, "Here's What Margaret Thatcher's Voice Really Sounded Like, Since Everyone Wants to Know," 27 Nov. 2020 Accompanying herself on keyboard, Allgood was vocally quite exposed, yet that rendered the purity of her timbre all the more effective. Howard Reich, chicagotribune.com, "Review: Winter’s Jazz Club celebrates a virtual 4th anniversary: ‘We need music in our lives now more than ever’," 15 Nov. 2020 Connery continued to work regularly up until his retirement in 2006, appearing largely in supporting roles, often riffing on his iconic rumbling vocal timbre, thick Scottish accent, and brusque humor. Liam Hess, Vogue, "Sir Sean Connery, the Original James Bond, Has Died at 90," 31 Oct. 2020 And soprano Kaitlin Foley, doubling as Acis' friend Damon and as a chorus member, produced a ripe timbre in her uppermost register, even in fast-moving passages. Howard Reich, chicagotribune.com, "Review: Haymarket Opera launches 10th season on film with ‘Acis and Galatea’," 31 Oct. 2020

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'timbre.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of timbre

1845, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for timbre

French, from Middle French, bell struck by a hammer, from Old French, drum, from Middle Greek tymbanon kettledrum, from Greek tympanon — more at tympanum

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Statistics for timbre

Last Updated

1 Apr 2021

Cite this Entry

“Timbre.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/timbre. Accessed 19 Apr. 2021.

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More Definitions for timbre

timbre

noun

English Language Learners Definition of timbre

: the quality of the sound made by a particular voice or musical instrument

timbre

noun
tim·​bre
variants: also timber \ ˈtam-​bər How to pronounce timbre (audio) , ˈtim-​; ˈtam(brᵊ) How to pronounce timbre (audio) \

Medical Definition of timbre

: the quality given to a sound by its overtones: as
a : the resonance by which the ear recognizes and identifies a voiced speech sound
b : the quality of tone distinctive of a particular singing voice or musical instrument

Other Words from timbre

timbral \ ˈtam-​brəl How to pronounce timbre (audio) , ˈtim-​ How to pronounce timbre (audio) \ adjective

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More from Merriam-Webster on timbre

Nglish: Translation of timbre for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of timbre for Arabic Speakers

Britannica.com: Encyclopedia article about timbre

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