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You don’t wanna know what the tree yells.

Dear Word Detective: When a lumberjack chops down a tree, does he yell “Timber!” or “Timbre!”? Either one makes sense: he is creating timber, but he wants to send an alarm that a tree is falling (“timbre” means “bell” or “alarm” in Spanish). — David Towne.

So near and yet so far. I sense that there’s the basis of a good joke in there, but I can’t quite make it out. It would probably work better as the caption of a New Yorker cartoon, anyway, perhaps something about a symphony conductor and a fainting violin section.

The short answer to your question (my ride is honking out front) is that lumberjacks shout “Timber!” to warn anyone in the vicinity that a big tree is on its way down. I suppose that people cutting down trees have shouted some kind of warning for thousands of years, but the cry “Timber!” in particular must be of relatively recent vintage, because the earliest occurrence of this particular use of the word found in print (so far) was in 1912 (“Timber-r-r! the long-drawn melodious warning call of the sawyers in a lumber camp when a tree is about to fall,” Western Canadian Dictionary). “Sawyer,” incidentally, is an old (14th century) word for a worker who saws timber, although in the US it also has been used to mean uprooted trees floating down a river (and posing a hazard to navigation).

“Timber” and “timbre,” despite their resemblance, are, of course, completely separate, unrelated words. We inherited “timber” from Old English, where it had arrived from old Germanic roots carrying the sense of “wooden dwelling,” and in English “timber” originally meant simply “building.” From there it took on the meaning of “building materials” and then simply “wood, logs or lumber,” especially for building structures. Eventually “timber” was also used to mean a large beam in a building or the major structural parts of a wooden ship’s hull (as in the stereotypical old salt’s phrase “Shiver me timbers!”). Along the way, “timber” also came to be used to mean the trees grown for the production of timber (“We continued our journey … through a forest of grand timber,” 1880), which explains the logic of the lumberjack’s warning cry. Simply shouting “Tree!” probably wouldn’t be as effective.

“Timbre” (which is usually pronounced “tam-ber,” although “tim-ber” and “tim-bruh” are also common) means the character or quality of a voice or musical sound produced by its various harmonic overtones; the “color” of a vocal or musical sound. We adopted “timbre” from French in the mid-19th century, where the word had previously meant both “bell” and “sound of a bell,” and, even earlier “small drum.” Back then, a “timbre” or “timbrel” was a small hand-held percussion instrument known today as a “tambourine” (which is itself related to “timbre”). Yet further back, this whole little circus is related to the Greek “tympanon,” which gave us “tympanum,” what we today know as the “kettledrum” in an orchestra.


On the wings of a whim.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of “on a lark,” as in “On a lark we went bowling”? — Chris.

“On a lark we went bowling”? Really? Dude, “lark” and “bowling” do not belong in the same sentence. “On a lark we flew to Paris” works. “On a lark I bought a Lamborghini” is believable. “On a lark we eloped and got married at Disney World” would be a credible premise for a romantic comedy. But “on a lark we went bowling” is just weird. Not that there’s anything wrong with bowling, I hasten to add. But for most people, the noble sport of bowling is not synonymous with wild-and-crazy carefree spontaneity. Unless, of course, you’re sitting in a day-long meeting with people you loathe at a job you hate. Then going bowling “on a lark” might be your ticket to a whole new life.

There are actually two “larks” in English (three, if you count the obscure 18th century use of the word to mean “a small boat”). The older “lark” is a small bird (also known as both the “laverock” and the “skylark”) famed for its melodious call and its love of flying at great heights. The name “lark” comes from the Old English “lawerce,” which came in turn from Germanic roots. Oddly, some of the earlier forms of “lark,” especially those found in Old Norse, imply that the original meaning of the word “lark” was related to “treason” in some way. There may be some rationale for this to be found in some folktale somewhere (“The Tale of the Perfidious Lark”?), but so far it’s a mystery and probably nothing to worry about. After all, a batch of the little birdies has been known as “an exaltation of larks” since the 15th century, which certainly beats “a murder of crows” in the avian public-relations department.

The other sort of “lark,” the one meaning “a lighthearted adventure, a spree, an impulsive action,” is of much more recent vintage, first appearing in the 19th century (“My mother … once by way of a lark, invited her to tea,” 1857). A “lark” is a brief but daring departure from routine, a flight of fancy, a bit of forbidden fun or a harmless prank, and “to lark” since the early 18th century has meant “to frolic or play.” The generally positive tone of this “lark” fits well with one theory of its source, namely that it is simply a reference to the light, soaring flight of the “lark” bird. A related verb of the same meaning, “skylarking,” apparently originated aboard sailing ships, and was used to describe crewmen roughhousing in the upper rigging of the ship’s masts, probably by analogy to the soaring flight of actual “skylarks.”

But it’s also possible that “lark” in this “frolic” sense came from a source unrelated to the “lark” bird. Some authorities point to the English dialectical verb “lake” or “laik,” meaning “to leap, play, spring up,” dating back to Old English and derived from Germanic roots. The transition from “lake” to “lark” would, in this theory, be explained by the particularities of pronunciation in southern England, where “r” sounds tend to creep into words lacking the actual letter. Of course, the similarity of the result to the name of the “lark” bird no doubt also played a role in the spread of this “lark.”

April 2012 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Well, that was fun.

Back in the first week of April, I was putting together this issue when I noticed that some comments needed approving. So I started combing through them as usual, approving the sane ones and nuking the spam, when I noticed that one of the less coherent spam comments could not be deleted. As they say on Law & Order, DUM dum. That ain’t right.

So I decide to think on it for a while (which is my response to almost every crisis that doesn’t involve either loaded weapons or the fire department) and went back to updating the site. Which is when I noticed that the entire site had suddenly gone bananas. Password-protected subscriber-only posts were appearing on the front page (not good), the Ask a Question page was non-functional (really bad), and the Index of one zillion pages suddenly consisted of just two entries, both in the category of “Odds & Ends.” Boy howdy. OK, now I’m freaking out.

You may not know this, but when you read a blog or other site running on WordPress, what you’re seeing is actually data pulled from a separate MySQL database. Everything on this site — posts, comments, categories, dates, etc. — is data in tables in that database. So evidently My Little Database is borked. No problemo! I have site backups created every day by a plugin and stashed elsewhere in my hosting account at I’ll just fire up the old FTP program, fetch them and restore the whole shebang. Uh, no. Apparently the permissions on that target directory got changed at some point and all my backups since March 2011 have been sliding straight into the bit-bucket. They don’t exist. It is now 3 am and I am seriously starting to freak.

So I write to support at And they answer about five minutes later. At 3:30 am! I love Pair. They say they have a backup, but it’s a general server backup, so no guarantees. And, in fact, it makes things worse. So I go back to square one, install the latest version of WP, restore the site to what it was a year ago, and start manually editing the database.

As it stands now, the site contains everything it should, but there are gaps in its memory (sounds familiar). If you’re looking for a particular word or phrase, the search box at the top of the left column is probably the best way to find it. I’m going to keep working on it. As to how all this happened, I don’t know. It may have been a botched hack (I was using a version of WP that apparently had vulnerabilities) or it could have just been a toxic conflict between two of the dozen or so plugins that I use to make the site run. Part of my problem is that I’ve been tinkering and adding things for years, and I am no longer sure just how everything works. As to why this all took so long to sorta-fix, it’s because my eyes have been on the fritz lately, making it hard to see much of anything.

Anyway, we’re up and running, at least. This issue is a bit short, but I will do my best to produce a proper May issue withing the next two weeks. If you’d like to boost my morale, you might consider subscribing.

And now, on with the show.