Campanology Word of the Day: Tocsin

Imagine a quiet, sleepy village. A gentle brook trickles near your cottage, a bird cheerfully chirps at your sill, and you’ve relaxed into your morning routine. Suddenly, a bell sounds out from the center of town, stirring you into alertness. You’d want to know what’s happening, right? You’d rush to the village church or town hall to learn what all the commotion is about. Thank goodness for the tocsin.

A tocsin (pronounced like its homonym: toxin) is an alarm or signal sounded by a bell. The word is derived from the Old Occitan tocasenh, a composite of tocar (“strike, touch”) + senh (“bell”). The English retrieved the word from Middle French, which itself stems from the older toquesain. It has been used for centuries to refer to the ringing of bells to signal events of importance, whether they be peaceful (a birth or special arrival) or violent (war, disease, or natural disaster). The first known recording of the word appears in a text from 1586, but it has since been adopted to cover all that harbingers news.

One notable example? A tocsin rang out incessantly during the catastrophic Chicago fire of 1871, until the courthouse bell itself was enveloped in flames and melted into the building’s inferno. The sound of a bell calls to attention, inspires action, and unites people to a cause – and continues to play an important role in community life today.

Cover image: Church bell in the village of Ushguli, Caucasus Mountains, Georgia.