Daily Archives: November 11, 2009


I was not in London during World War II; I was born two dozen years later, in Canada. But I have heard and read about what it was like there and then, under aerial assault by the Germans. One of the more striking things mentioned was the buzz bomb. It was an early cruise missile, propeller driven, with an odometer that triggered an aerodynamic jam when its destination had been reached, forcing it into a steep dive. The steep dive caused fuel flow to the engine to stop (not vice versa, as is often thought). The effect from ground level was that the buzzing of the engine was audible, and everyone hoped it would keep buzzing, but if it stopped, then the next thing was a dreadful silence, and then an explosion.

This is what bombinate makes me think of. Bombinate does not mean “bomb” noun or verb, however; it is the noise the buzz bombs made before the engine cut out. It is also the hum of a bumblebee. And one might use it to characterize the sound of the bombard, a reed instrument – bombard does mean “buzzer,” after all. Yes, bombard also means a stone-throwing engine, and from that it means the act of using such an engine; the engine got its name because Latin bombus could also mean “boom” (boom is related to bombus, too) or “hum.” Bombard does not come from bomb; it’s actually been in English longer, in fact. But bomb comes from the noise that bombs make – the booming, not the buzzing. And bombinate, for its part, does not seem to buzz at all, not to my ears; hum, even boom, but not buzz. Well, it can mean “drone” or “hum” as well. But there it is. The bombus is innate in it, innit?

Bombinate is actually based on a bit of dodgy Latin; the proper Latin for the same thing was bombitare, but Rabelais wrote, in a satire of subtle scholarly distinctions, about “Questio subtilissima, utrum chimera in vacuo bombinans possit comedere secundas intentiones”: the very subtle question of whether a chimera bombinating in a vacuum is able to eat second intentions. I suppose the answer is that colourless green ideas sleep furiously. But we do have some sense, at least, of the vast number of second intentions a bombinating bomb could consume in a silent instant in London.

My thanks to Elaine Phillips for suggesting this word.



If you picture the devil, he’s holding a trident; but if his pitchfork is a tuning fork, it is sure to produce a tritone. It’s a trying tone, the tritone, and not a typically trite one; most people would rather try not to intone it. Even Triton, the merman messenger of the deep, who blew a terrible sound on a conch, would not fancy it (it’s more of a dry tone) – and that other Merman, Ethel, would have been no less cagey about it. The only ones producing the interval would be the sirens. I don’t mean the famous singing sisters, either: I mean the two-note alerts on emergency vehicles in places such as England. Walk over to your piano (or someone else’s) and play B and F. You will likely find it neither good nor rich.

But why is it a tritone? Is it really tri plus tone? Yes, it is. It is a difference of three whole tones (six semitones). In the C major scale, the fourth (i.e., the fourth note counting upwards, with C as the first) is F, and the fifth is G. Now, if you start at F instead of C, the fifth is C – a fifth and a fourth make up an octave. But F# (F-sharp) is the tritone of C and vice-versa: there are twelve semitones in an octave, so six is halfway, and two tritones make an octave. So why doesn’t it produce a nice harmony? Because the frequencies increase logarithmically: each semitone is 1.06 times the frequency of the previous, and so the frequency 50% higher – which does make a nice harmony – is actually seven semitones up, the fifth, for example from C to G. And the tritone is so not it. It is a diminished fifth – or an augmented fourth.

The tritone has a mythos such that if you ask a musician about the it, they will be sure to mention directly that it’s the “diabolus in musica,” the devil in music. Stories abound about its being anathematized in medieval times, singers who dare voice it risking excommunication, but these are mere stories; the dissonance was disliked for obvious enough reasons, but the term “diabolus in musica” is only attested starting in the eighteenth century. And by the middle of the twentieth century, this archetypal dissonance was being used thematically in classical music – it’s central to Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, for instance.

But the tritone is also a central note to “the devil’s music” – blues, which were, incidentally, the original basis for heavy metal music (which, however, has moved quite some ways away from blues in the intervening decades). In the hexatonic scale of the blues, it is the pivotal note, and it is called the “blue note.” Which is not to say it runs afoul of blue laws. But be wary of it if liquor is restricted – you don’t want to be caught with a diminished fifth.