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h-e-double-hockey-sticks

The Spring weather continues to be glorious and perfect for a hike.  So this week you are invited to accompany us on a stroll - through the dictionary - and we'll see what odd creatures and gnarled roots we can find along the way.

Selecting a page at random we find hello but, as we've done that already, let's start where so many people have suggested we go: hell.  This is the modern version of the Old English word hel which meant "the coverer-up" or "the hider". A relic of this meaning remains in the dialect word hele meaning "cover" or "concealment".  Hel was also the name of the Norse goddess of the underworld.  

In the Bible we sometimes read of Gehenna which is (take a deep breath) the Latin form of the Greek spelling of the post-Biblical Hebrew geihinnom "hell, place of fiery torment for the dead".  This word geihinnom was a figurative use of the place-name gei ben Hinnom ("the valley of the children of Hinnom"), a place near Jerusalem where, according to Jeremiah, children were burnt in sacrifice to the Philistine gods Baal and Molech.  Another place of human sacrifice which became symbolic of infernal torment was the nearby location of Tophet.  This name was said to derive from toph, Hebrew for "timbrel" or "tabret", because such instruments were played at these rituals.

Not quite sure what a timbrel is?  Never heard of a tabret?  Well, the dictionary defines tabret as "a small tabor", "a timbrel", which is fine if you already know that a tabor is a kind of drum or that timbrel means "tambourine".  Some languages add an m to tabor (e.g. Spanish tambor, Italian tamburo) and our tambourine is a French diminutive of tambour (which makes it a doublet with tabret). Tabor is assumed to be of oriental origin, probably from Persian taburah, or taburak, both of which mean "drum".  Timbrel is another diminutive, this time of timbre, which is yet another word for a drum.  The word is Old French, ultimately from Greek tympanon "a kettledrum" which, being closed at the bottom, is a completely different instrument [we were tempted to say "kettle of fish" - M&M], via the Latin tympanum which is also the medical name for the eardrum. Over time, the meaning of timbre drifted from "drum" to "bell" and when we speak of the timbre of someone's voice we allude (remotely) to this "bell" meaning. 

This shift was but the first of a strange succession of meanings.  Because of their resemblance in shape to hemi-spherical clock bells, metal skull-caps and helmets were called timbres and, consequently, timbre became the heraldic term for a helm placed over the shield in a coat of arms.  By association, any official crest stamped or impressed on an official document was called a timbre. And that is how this word (literally "drum") came to be the French word for "postage stamp".

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