timbre

noun

tim·​bre ˈtam-bər How to pronounce timbre (audio)
ˈtim-;
ˈtam(brᵊ)
variants or less commonly timber
: 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
timbral
ˈtam-brəl How to pronounce timbre (audio)
ˈtim-
adjective

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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 For an exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona earlier this year, Paz worked with singer Maria Arnal to create a timbre transfer model for her voice. Adam Clair, Vox, 1 July 2024 But Biden’s early struggles with his words and the lack of timbre in his voice have instead created panic among Democrats. Noah Bierman, Los Angeles Times, 28 June 2024 Each aural niche has a specific frequency, amplitude and timbre, and animals evolve to communicate with one another based on native sounds. David Vaina, Orlando Sentinel, 28 June 2024 Each player is their own instrument, an individual timbre; the series isn’t so much edited as orchestrated. Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times, 27 June 2024 See all Example Sentences for timbre 

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'timbre.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

Etymology

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

First Known Use

1845, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of timbre was in 1845

Dictionary Entries Near timbre

Cite this Entry

“Timbre.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/timbre. Accessed 18 Jul. 2024.

Kids Definition

timbre

noun
tim·​bre ˈtam-bər How to pronounce timbre (audio) ˈtim- How to pronounce timbre (audio)
: the quality of a sound or musical tone determined by its overtones and different for each voice or instrument

Medical Definition

timbre

noun
tim·​bre
variants also timber
: 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
timbral adjective

More from Merriam-Webster on timbre

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