tim·​bre | \ˈtam-bər, 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, 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

And what of Slimane’s voice, one of the most clear and distinctive out there: How has his time away altered its timbre? Vogue, "How These 12 Boundary-Breaking Designers Continue to Think Globally," 13 Aug. 2018 These days the emotional timbre of the Steyer house oscillates between the dire and the gleeful: The world is a wreck, but we are so pumped up about saving it! Rob Haskell, Vogue, "Billionaire Democrat Tom Steyer on Impeaching Trump, Getting Out the Vote, and Winning in 2020," 14 Nov. 2018 The timbre of singers’ voices and acoustic instruments feels consistently on point. Vlad Savov, The Verge, "Audio-Technica M50xBT review: better beats," 12 Nov. 2018 Deaver’s story is doled out piece by piece, as is the rising timbre of Zalewski’s distress, and the resulting tension is one of the best things about the show. Karen Han, Vox, "Hulu’s Castle Rock gets what makes Stephen King so scary," 20 July 2018 Stories about these writers take on the timbre of legend around town. Chris Offutt, Town & Country, "A Writer's Guide to Oxford, Mississippi," 22 Nov. 2013 And then there was that voice of Porter’s, deep in pitch, often dark in timbre and so large in scale as to fill easily every corner of the room with resonant, rounded sound. Howard Reich, chicagotribune.com, "Gregory Porter sounds sumptuous with CSO," 12 June 2018 The timbre of the family’s domesticity has a strange texture. Josephine Livingstone, The New Republic, "Sight and Silence," 11 Apr. 2018 That shift has muted the music’s rhythmic attack and timbre, but the process has also imbued it with a new deep melancholy. Peter Margasak, Chicago Reader, "A Hawk and a Hacksaw embrace a darker, muted sound on their first new album in five years," 17 May 2018

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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Dictionary Entries near timbre

timber yard






time's up

Statistics for timbre

Last Updated

5 Dec 2018

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The first known use of timbre was in 1845

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English Language Learners Definition of timbre

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


variants: also timber \ˈtam-​bər, ˈtim-​; ˈtam(brᵊ) \

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, ˈtim-​ \ adjective

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More from Merriam-Webster on timbre

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with timbre

Spanish Central: Translation of 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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a soft lustrous wool fabric with mohair

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