Timber or timbre

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Timbre, pronounced either TIM-ber or TAM-ber (the latter being closer to the French pronunciation), means tone quality. It is primarily a music-related term, but it can refer to other sounds. For example, we might say that a trumpet has a brassy timbre, or that the sound of the crowd during a football game has a timbre like waves on the beach. Timber refers primarily to wood and lumber.

Aside from their similarity in spelling and sound (where timbre is not pronounced in the French manner), the words have nothing in common. Timber has roots in Old English, and though it has borne several senses over the centuries, it has remained more or less the same since its earliest documented use in the second half of the first millennium A.D.1 Timbre, meanwhile, has a long history in French, where it has historically referred primarily to bells and helmets, but it did not enter English until the late 19th century,2 which makes it well over a millennium newer to English than timber.


With this gesture (and slick software), she controls the timbre of the Chandelier’s sound as well as the pitch and volume of Maddalena’s baritone notes. [The Atlantic]

You can’t get that kind of clear fir lumber anymore and there’s a developing market for reclaimed old-growth timber. [Vancouver Sun]

He used his full voice, its timbre darkening as the narrative developed. [New Zealand Herald]

Remnants of what appears to have been a medieval mill, including “very well-preserved” timber beams, pottery and leather shoes, have been found. [Irish Times]

This arrestingly original timbre, though, was sometimes undermined by gratingly overwrought delivery. [Scotsman]

Malaysia’s timber exports may also enjoy a boost from reconstruction. [The Economist]


1. Timber in the OED (subscription required)
2. Timbre in the OED