Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Charlie from Traverse City asked about the word tintinnabulation. At the core is the Latin verb tintinnare, to ring, clink, or jingle. If you say “tin-tin” aloud, you can hear that it is an approximation or imitation of a bell sound. That makes it onomatopoeia – the sound suggests the sense of the word. (Inescapably, I picture a belly dancer plying her finger cymbals.)

The OED points to the –bulation segment as a suffix of instrument. The Oxford English Dictionary also labels all variants of the word as pedantic. In other words, your average churchgoer isn’t going to remark that the bells are particularly tintinnabulent on any given Saturday or Sunday.

The word would probably have died out as being too arch or bookish had it not been for Edgar Allen Poe. In the late 1840s, he wrote a poem titled The Bells, and he found the word very useful in establishing the desired meter in stanza 1.

Hear the sledges with the bells -

Silver bells!

What a world of merriment their melody foretells!

How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,

In the icy air of night!

While the stars that oversprinkle

All the heavens, seem to twinkle

With a crystalline delight;

Keeping time, time, time,

In a sort of Runic rhyme,

To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells

From the bells, bells, bells, bells,

Bells, bells, bells -

From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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