Campanology Word of the Day: Tintinnabulation

Across the centuries, men and women have tried to capture into words the ephemeral ringing notes of a bell. But how do you describe the different moods that a bell might evoke? Bells are certainly a most expressive instrument and our vocabulary has expanded to more acutely describe the many nuances of a ringing bell.

For instance, a clamorous tocsin might sound the alarm for a fire. A languid, plangent toll might summon mourners to a funeral. But if the notes of a bell tinkle or jingle with an effervescent lightness, it is certainly a merry tintinnabulation.

Tintinnabulation is the ringing, jingling, tinkling quality of bells. Etymologically, it is the noun of action from tintinnabulate and comes to us from the Latin: tintinnabulum (“a bell”), from tintinnāre (“ring, clang, or jingle”). That marvelous man of mystery and the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe, is credited with bringing the word to English in the early 1800s. He notably used it in the first stanza of his poem “The Bells” to pull the reader into ever-darker emotions and feelings about bells.

Excerpt from “The Bells” by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

        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.


What a splendid turn of phrase! Tracing a similar etymological path, we better understand the condition tinnitus – a ringing in the ears. So the next time you find yourself strolling down an avenue and a tintinnabulation of church bells wafts across your ear, you’ll be better prepared to note the exact quality of ringing you’re hearing!

Image: Bells tintinnabulate outside a Buddhist temple in Thailand.