Q&A: Timber vs lumber

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're knocking on wood…

Q: Hi AWC, I have a knotty question for you this week.

A: Sounds intriguing.

Q: It’s about wooden things.

A: Do you mean like tables, chairs and most of Andie McDowell’s performances?

Q: No you’re barking up the wrong tree. I mean what’s the difference between “timber” and “lumber”? Is it just a geographic thing?

A: Ah, good question. The term “timber” was definitely the original word.

Q: How old is it?

A: The best way to tell is to count the number of rings on each of the letters.

Q: Huh?

A: Never mind, just a tree joke. The word “timber” is as old as the trees themselves – dating back to Old English well before the 13th century. It originally meant a “building or structure” before expanding to also define trees suitable for building, and eventually trees or wood in general. It had Norse and German roots – timbr and zimmer respectively.

Q: Zimmer – like composer Hans Zimmer?

A: Yep. That’s clearly why he uses a lot of woodwind instruments. 

Q: Really?

A: No. But fun fact, the name “Zimmerman” means “carpenter” in German.

Q: And yet a zimmer frame is made from aluminium…

A: It’s a messed up world.

Q: So how long have people been calling out “timber!” when they chop down a tree?

A: That’s more recent. Canadians have been shouting that since 1912. It could have been much earlier, but those trees fell in a forest when no one else was around to hear them.

Q: Hilarious

A: Thank you.

Q: And why do pirates say, “shiver me timbers”? Is it some kind of muscle memory spasm related to their wooden leg?

A: Very creative, but no. The term “timbers” dates back to the 1700s and simply referred to the wooden hull of a ship. Meanwhile, shiver hasn’t always been about the cold. Even today it has a second meaning, “to break or split into fragments”.

Q: So why would a pirate go around saying “break my ship!”

A: According to the Macquarie Dictionary, it was “a mock nautical oath, expressing fearful anticipation or surprise”. 

Q: Okay, so that’s timber, and it seems to have all the bases covered. I don’t see the term “lumber” used here in Australia at all.

A: Yeah, it’s not. Those Canadians yelling “timber!” earlier – well, you’d call them lumberjacks.

Q: Ah okay, yes I’ve heard of “lumberjacks”. Bearded men in plaid shirts.

A: That’s them. The term indeed originated in Canada in the 1830s – a largely historical term now that was used to describe woodcutters who felled trees with manual tools and transported them for processing. The modern term is “logger”.

Q: That’s a lot of information to lumber me with.

A: Aha – the verb forms of “lumber” ARE used by people outside North America. To lumber can mean “to heap together in disorder” or also to describe someone moving clumsily or awkwardly – “lumbering about”.

Q: Sure. But in Australia, we don’t use “lumber” for woody things, right?

A: Like Toy Story?

Q: No.

A: Woody Harrelson?

Q: NO.

A: Woody Allen? Guthrie? Woodpecker?

Q: Things made of wood!

A: Oh, THOSE woody things. No, not really. In North America, they make a clear distinction between wood that still has bark on it – timber – and wood that has been rough sawn and ready for production – lumber. This noun form originally turned up in the 1500s, to mean “a discarded or useless piece of furniture”, before getting its “rough planks of wood” meaning by the 1660s.

Q: About the same time that people were busy chopping down trees in America, yeah?

A: That’s the one. Remember that verb meaning about moving clumsily?

Q: Of course, it was only 25 seconds ago.

A: Well, that meaning had been around since the 14th century, probably from Swedish “loma” – to walk heavily. It’s where we also get the word “lame” from and it’s likely where “lumber” the noun came from – the wood being so heavy and awkward to move.

Q: Not if you’re a big strong bearded lumberjack though.

A: Probably not.

Q: I guess working those axes all day must have given them bad backs. 

A: They’d be quite “saw”, yes.

Q: Haha. So is that where “lumber support” comes from?

A: Nope. That’s “lumbar” with an A – relating to the lower torso and lumbar vertebrae of the spine. It’s from Latin “lumbus” or loin. Not related at all.

Q: So, recap time. In terms of wood that has been cut and ready to use, “lumber” and “timber” can mean the same thing, depending on where you live?

A: That’s right. “Lumber”, “lumber yards” and “lumber mills” are really only a thing in the USA and Canada – replaced simply with “timber” everywhere else. Even in North America, “timber” is often used interchangeably, but if they do make a distinction, timber will be the untreated “bark still on” variety of chopped tree.

Q: Okay, I just thought of a joke. Why did the lumberjack label his cutting tools X and Y while listening to music?

A: That’s a very specific scenario. No idea. Why?

Q: Because every logger rhythm needs X and Y axes!

A: If a joke falls in a forest…


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