January 31, 2010

Presidential timber

A reader objects to my statement in VDARE.com:
If Obama’s father were white, he no more would have been considered Presidential timber than if the last President’s father had been named Smith.

He writes:
Surely, you meant "Presidential timbre."

I tried both phrases in a search engine, and found about 20 times more examples of "Presidential timber" than "Presidential timbre." Here's a debate between an English teacher and a Reuter's copy editor over the question.

My offhand guess would be that the phrase started out as "Presidential timbre," but all the lumber-related Presidential folklore -- Washington chopping down the cherry tree, Lincoln splitting rails -- led to a change in spelling over the years.

On the other hand, almost all cute etymological theories like this turn out to be wrong.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Figures. Sailre cannot even spell his own name right.

Tiny Timber said...

'TIMBER!!!!' or 'TIMBRE!!!', the big hollow tree is tipping, and I hope it falls on the Democrats.

Keyser Söze said...

Surely, you meant "Presidential timbre."

Huh? "Timber" in the sentence means "material suitable for building something," a metaphor from carpentry and the like. That sense is spelled "timber." "Timbre," on the other hand, means "pitch of sound," which isn't what's meant.

Anonymous said...

No, I'd chalk this up to people being more familiar with the spelling 'timber' than 'timbre'. The latter just looks like a common typo. More than once I've reverted helpful edits on Wikipedia where the editor simply didn't realize that what looked like a typo was quite deliberate.

Polistra said...

More likely started out as timber. In earlier times, timber was closely equivalent to lumber, as in usable wood. So Presidential timber was another way of saying Presidential material.

The specialization of timber to mean raw logs is fairly recent.

Default User said...

Aren't the words spoken differently (timbre as "tamber")?

Timber works in that it reflects the qualities of wood, strength, flexibility, etc.

Timbre works in that it represents tone and the quality of blending in.

Obama was definitely a timbre type (all tone) but lacking substance (timber).

Reagan was more a timber guy, even if he had the right timbre.

Kylie said...

Now you've got me wondering about another aspect. Shouldn't your statement read as follows?

"If Obama's father were white, he, Barack, no more would have been considered Presidential timber than George W. Bush would have been had his father been someone named Smith."

It seems to me that as your statement stands (regardless of whether you use "timber" or "timbre"), it says that Barack's suitability as Presidential material was dependent on his father's race or George H. Bush's surname when clearly that's not what you intended. Barack is mentioned twice so shouldn't Dubya be, too? Otherwise, it seems the analogy is lacking the necessary symmetry. Definitely a syntactical tangle. Or do I mean semantic?

Not a criticism, by the way, I think you're a terrific writer.

Anonymous said...

Well shiver me timbres ;-)

How about the information at http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?l=t&p=13

l said...

"Timber" makes more literal sense: In this case it's interchangeable with "material" or "stuff."

Steve Wood said...

My offhand guess would be that the phrase started out as "Presidential timbre," but the legendary associations between famous Presidents and timber -- Washington chopping down the cherry tree, Lincoln splitting rails -- led to a change in spelling over the years.

"Timber" is correct, "timbre" is not. This is not new. My 35-year-old Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary gives one meaning of "timber" as "material, stuff." "Timbre" is given only the familiar sound-related meanings.

Anonymous said...

Webster's Unabridged supports your original usage. Timbre is only defined by its acoustic and musical definitions, whereas timber actually includes "Presidential timber" as an example.

kudzu bob said...

While we are on the subject of grammar, proper usage, and so on, I just want to say that I absolutely hate the way that some posters--YEAH, I'M LOOKING RIGHT AT YOU, JODY-THINKS HE'S-E-E-CUMMINGS-OR-SOME-DAMN-THING--don't do readers the courtesy of using capital letters. It makes their comments unnecessarily hard to read, and so I don't even try. I suspect that a lot of other readers just skip over their eyestrain-inducing prose as well.

Anonymous said...

Off topic, Steve, but did you see this:

"U.S. Jews and Latinos form unlikely bond over immigration policy"


"The Jewish-Latino alliance on immigration issues builds on the heritage and experience of the Jewish community and on the enthusiasm and urgent needs of the Hispanic community, which has a strong interest in issues of family unification and the status of the some 12 million illegal immigrants, most of them from Latin America. But Jewish activists also see the joint work as an opening for cooperation with the Hispanic community on other issues, such as Israel."

"Yet the CIS poll also found that Jews were still considerably more likely than members of other religious groups to support granting legal status to illegal immigrants, a finding that immigration advocates say rings true.

The organized Jewish community is more committed than ever to immigration reform. A letter supporting immigration reform, which will be sent out to all Senate offices in early February, was signed by dozens of national Jewish organizations.

Joining forces with the Hispanic community has been a longstanding goal for Jewish groups. But what seems to be a rare chance to reform immigration laws has helped galvanize the relationship."

"Jewish groups bring to the table their experience and well-established network of political contacts, a contribution highly appreciated by Hispanic organizers.

"For us, as newcomers to the society, this experience is extraordinary," said Gutavo Torres, president of Casa Maryland, a Hispanic group active in the metropolitan Washington area. "They know how to work through the system, how to lobby, how to advocate. The Jewish community has a lot of experience and a lot of power."

CJ said...

There's an Immanuel Kant quote that is usually rendered as, "Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made." Surely this is the original sense of "Presidential timber". I can't remember ever seeing the spelling 'timbre' used for anything but describing the sound of a voice or musical instrument.

BTW, 'crooked timber' gets 870,000 Google hits.

Average Joe said...

Maybe "timbre" is the British version? Like "centre" is the British version of "center".

Bryan Townsend said...

I don't know the history of the references to Presidents, but timbre refers to the musical quality of a sound, the makeup of the overtones, basically. So if the traditional meaning was in reference to quality in that sense, well, ok. I'm assuming that there is some connection to metaphors like "ringing true" which probably comes from the old practice of dropping a coin on a hard surface in order to detect a counterfeit. Timber? No idea where that came from...

Anonymous said...

I dunno, I don't think that "timbre" is any more or less sensible than "timber".

Timbre - 'The combination of qualities of a sound that distinguishes it from other sounds of the same pitch and volume.'

So what the heck is "presidential timbre"?

dearieme said...

Say "calibre".

jody said...

yeah, that's boring. so let's go off topic.

bigelow wins the director's guild award for best director. according to what i have read on the internet, since 1948, only 6 winners of this award have not won the academy award.

steve's prediction is looking good.

so steve, was that prediction based on bigelow being a woman, or, after seeing the hurt locker in the theater (how? i'd like to know) did you agree with the critics that it was easily equal to saving private ryan?

ebert says by his opinion, it was the second best movie of the decade. it's all laughable BS to me, but maybe i'm the one who totally missed on the hurt locker, and not everybody else.

i'm sticking with my guns though. a movie that good, somebody would have paid for a wide release. that it got no wide release supports my opinion that it's just not nearly as good as the critics say.

going by the numbers, no movie which made as little as the hurt locker has even been NOMINATED for best director since 1970 or so. is the academy ready to take the final step and admit they are off in their own little world, and prepared to take the concordant plunge in credibility and prestige?

50 million people do not tune in to see 4 hours worth of hollywood circle jerking. they'd like a few movies that they actually saw to be awarded for something.

the academy awards are not the biggest, most prestigious awards for long, if the the academy begins treating movies like college students treat crappy indie bands. best album in 2009: some indie band's 8th album which sold 50,000 copies.

C. Van Carter said...

See here and here.

ricpic said...

Timbre is a musical term. A particular instrument or voice has a particular quality, a particular timbre.

Timber obviously evolved from wood, the good wood, good or solid character, that makes for a good president.

Two completely different terms.

Anonymous said...

There could be an obvious common root meaning - most musical instruments [the strings and three of the four woodwinds] are made of wood, and, as a result, much of musical physics involves the theory of resonating wood.

Billare said...

The etymology probably comes from the the musical "timbre" -- roughly a term used to describe the quality of a certain frequency modified by the sound reflections, resonance, etc. caused by the shape & material used to produce the sound. The sentence that comes to mind most immediately for usage is from Stephen King's The Shining when hotel's spirit in Jack Torrance yells through him at his son, "I don't think you have the managerial timbre!" Thus I'm thinking that the word's new association comes from its original use as an adjective to describe pitch of voice of a speaker -- to have a presidential or managerial timbre is to have a voice worthy of respect and command, probably one of a deep and booming timbre. I'm guessing with time that particular specificity was lost.

MQ said...

Obviously Obama could have been Presidential material if he had been white. Harvard Law Review editor, inspiring orator, shrewd political operator...many have gotten there with less. Becoming President today takes an opportunistic, ambitious, smart entrepreneurial type who senses their moment and then leverages their advantages to the max. Obama did exactly that. He's doing reasonably well in office too, his approval ratings are pretty high given the unemployment rate and public anger. In that department he's doing about as well as Reagan did under similar circumstances.

My guess is that (like Reagan) he will have a bad midterm election that seriously dents his Congressional majority, maybe even loses it, but then win reelection in 2012 when the economy eventually turns up.

Oboy Obama said...

Presidential Timber went bye-bye with the rise of the boomer generation.

Sure, the older generation had their secrets,flings, and flaws, but they had a better sense of form, discretion, and public dignity.

Clinton, on the other hand, was an openly sleazy dufus. A big mac munching, sweaty jogging, women-ogling, hee hee haw haw guffawing, saxphone blasting, ding dong flinging, cumming-all-over jerkass punk. He was totally shameless as president.

Bush supposedly went straight and found God after a youth marked by womanizing and boozing, but he was always in fratboy mode. The smirk, the body gestures, the dumb beer-drunk talk, and I-wanna-be-popular antics.

Obama is the first post-boomer president, but he's like those Hollywood actors who physically and emotionally never mature beyond the age of 17. He looks like a great highschool president(and the media have descended to the level of highschool newspaper). He's a celebresident.

Anonymous said...

"Obviously Obama could have been Presidential material if he had been white. Harvard Law Review editor, inspiring orator, shrewd political operator...many have gotten there with less."

Surely you jest - Harvard Law Review has an Editor every year, we have a president every four years, and fewer than one in a hundred of them came through the HLR gate. The things you cite are far short of a presidential resume. Many Presidents may have had lesser academic credentals, but lately I am applying a huge discount to the value of academic credentials. I my self have a Berkeley Doctorate and while I value my opinions it is not clear why the rest of the world should.

Anonymous said...

but then win reelection in 2012 when the economy eventually turns up.

Funny joke...

Manny Guises said...

iSteve, why don't you ever talk about Abe Foxman's favorite website, the Kvetcher Blog?


There is an entire category in the navigation drop down menu labeled "Steve Sailer"...

Baloo said...

Seriously, does anybody think a White Obama, with no other changes to his intellect or character, would have gotten anywhere near Harvard, let alone edited the Law Review?

For his multitude of flaws, Slick Willy is intelligent. Obama is mediocre at best.

rkillings said...

Steve was right the first time: it's "timber".
There is no etymological mystery at all. The word "timbre" comes via French from a Greek word meaning drum -- the same source as for tympanum. (How it comes to mean postage stamp in French is a long story.)
The word "timber" comes from a Gothic/Teutonic word with the root meaning of "build". The Oxford English Dictionary defines its meaning in phrases like "presidential timber" as follows:
7.fig. Bodily structure, frame, build. In later use, the ‘stuff’ of which a person is made; personal quality or character; preceded by a qualifying word: suitable quality or character for the specified office, etc. Cf. material n. 7. Chiefly U.S.

jody said...

"It makes their comments unnecessarily hard to read, and so I don't even try. I suspect that a lot of other readers just skip over their eyestrain-inducing prose as well."

then skip over my posts. go ahead, do like you claim you are going to do. except you won't. my posts do bother you, and you don't skip over them. you like reading them, then complaining about them.

i don't like baseball, so i don't watch it. i don't even think about baseball. i don't deliberately go watch baseball, then complain about how much i think it sucks. i don't do like internet posters who claim they are going to do one thing, but turn around and do the opposite. so go ahead. walk the talk. ignore my posts. ignore my reply. you said you were going to ignore me, so ignore me.

Truth said...

"do like you claim you are going to do. except you won't. my posts do bother you, and you don't skip over them. you like reading them, then complaining about them."

Ooops; dang Bobby, Lower Case Joey just handled you like a novice. Now be a good Southern Boy and pretend it's 1865 and Bow Down!

kudzu bob said...

Truth doesn't know what "novice" means. Yet another dreary item to add to the ever-lengthening list of things they don't teach at his "alma matter," Warm Body University.

Anonymous said...

Timbre refers to the harmonic composition of a note played on a particular musical instrument. Timber refers to tree wood, which can be be soft or hard.

If Obama were a tree, I'd say he has dry rot and is about to slump over. If Obama were a musical instrument, well, so far all I've heard is the buzzing sound from a toilet paper and comb.

The Anti-Gnostic said...

For his multitude of flaws, Slick Willy is intelligent. Obama is mediocre at best.

Correct, and correct.

M. M. said...

Faintly related, OT, really, but Steve might find this interesting, as once again diversity seems to be strength:


30% of freshmen fail a "simple English test" at Waterloo University (up from 25% a few years ago. Academic papers are riddled with "cuz" (in place of "because") and even include emoticons. One professor says that students "think commas are sort of like Parmesan cheese that you sprinkle on your words." At Simon Fraser University, 10% of students are not qualified to take the mandatory writing courses.

Chicago Correspondent said...

Either way it's a been a tired cliche for a long time so avoid using it. You should be inventive and coin your own catchy descriptives.

CK said...

The nuances of quality among boards, a fit discussion for timber graders.

Agio said...

O.K.,Chicago Correspondent, how about Presidential Sapling?

Paul Mendez said...

Gustavo Torres has a lot of chutzpah!

He and his buddies Tom Perez, Nancy Navarro and others have been building a power base in Montgomery County MD by constantly reminding latinos that the(largely Jewish) Democratic establishment, "doesn't look like us."