Q&A: Timber vs lumber

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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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