Tintinnabulation: Origin of words and #belltolls4JZ

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Church bells


This delightful six-syllable tongue-twister made its debut in 1831 according to some sources, even earlier according to others.

Online Etymology Dictionary states its origin in usage as “the ringing of bells,” 1823, from the Latin tintinnabulum “bell,” from tintinnare “to ring, jingle”.

Its other near relatives in earlier forms of English were as an adjective tintinnabulary (1787), tintinnabulatory (1827), and noun tintinnabulum “small bell” (late 14c.).

I did not happen upon this word with ease. It was in my search for trending words that I scanned the list and only at ‘t’ was I suitably satisfied to write about tintinnabulation. It was up there with ‘twitter’ which needs no discussion, as it has escalated itself into our daily lives driven by its brand creator, whose precise intention it was to do just that.

Poet, Edgar Alan Poe is credited by many for early use of the word according to worldwidewords.org. “Poe was borrowing from a number of related terms that had by then been around for several decades, such as tintinnabulary, an obscure and rather pedantic word for bell-ringing or a bell-ringer, first recorded in 1767 (it is linked to tintinnabularius, a Latin word which meant a bellman in the statutes of the University of Oxford; all such words come from Latin tinnire to ring, as also does tinnitus, the medical term for a ringing or buzzing in the ears).

Thus Poe’s poem The Bells could support this notion in the extract…

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

Charles Dickens in Dombey and Sons in 1847 found a place for the word in: “It was drowned in the tintinnabulation of the gong, which sounding again with great fury, there was a general move towards the dining-room”. (worldwidewords.org)

Dickens hit tintinnabulation in its heyday as the word had a dramatic fall off from the mid-19th Century. Fast, fast forward to the 21st Century, it’s probably safe to say that no one has sufficiently appreciated its vibrant onomatopoeia to tweet about it, work it into a rap rhythm or praise song, much less a hashtag.

But I must admit, having avoided all temptation to make a political statement, there is a bell ringing for someone who calls himself the president of South Africa.

Alas it’s a piercing tintinnabulation achingly shrill to the masses, but deafeningly silent to those who can make a change. In simpler terms #belltolls4JZ.

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