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Definition: The sound of ringing bells

Pronunciation: tin-ti-nab-yuh-lay-shun


This word originated in American English in the mid-1820s. It is based on the Latin’tintinnabulum’, meaning ‘bell’. The word ‘tintinnabulum’, referring to a small bell, appeared in the English language in the late 1300s and various attempts to resurrect the word can be found throughout the course of the following centuries, including the rather pompous sounding ‘tintinnabulary’ in the 1780s. Rather interestingly, the reason that it seems tintinnabulations outlived the other variants was because of the person to whom the final framing of the word has been accredited: Edgar Allen Poe.

Why this word?

Bedight. Decora. Diddler. Quotability. These are all examples of words that were given to us by Edgar Allen Poe. Poe is rightly remembered as the man who gave an American voice to the macabre side of the Romantic movement. However, for me, the delight in reading Poe comes from his choice – and, sometimes, invention – of words designed to capture as much description as possible within the boundaries of a single word. For Poe, it seems that the spaces adjoining each end of a word were not spaces at all – but were, conversely, the bars of a cage into which the author would dare to pack as much meaning as possible. While Poe had many successes in this, he had equally as many word concoctions that sound cumbersome at best. Think, for example, of ‘misadmeasurement’, ‘oraculiarities’ and ‘sermonoid’, for example. However, for the most part, Poe had a way of capturing the correct letters in that cage. And when he did, the result was a tintinnabulation of pleasure to the ear.

How to use this word:

Tintinnabulations sounds like a celebratory word and should be used in this context. For example, ‘The tintinnabulations called the village to the church to begin the wedding ceremony’ is perfect. However, consider poor Quasimodo and his harrowed soul dragged into strips by those bells: “The tintinnabulations – the tintinnabulations – they made me deaf, you know …” There is no room to express woe in this word. Luckily for Quasimodo, however, this is one tintinnabulation that Victor Hugo did not suffer onto him.


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Written by Sean Carabini

Seán Carabini is a Dublin-based author. To date, Seán has written the humorous travel memoirs 'Sticking Out in Minnesota' and 'American Road', as well as 'American Road: The poems' - a book of travel poetry related to the memoir. Seán has also developed a podcast based on the book - subscribe to the American Road podcast today! Seán is a committee member of the Irish Writers' Union.

Chrissy Skelton is Seán Carabini's editor. A graduate of the University of Minnesota's Anthropology programme, Chrissy emerged armed with an arsenal of little-known words and cumbersome jargon - all of which will now be off-loaded onto 'unusedwords' readers!


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