tumbrel

Barbara Kay, writing in the National Post, commented, “Ignatieff has zero emotional appeal to Quebecers and anyway, you could hear the rumble of the tumbrils for the Liberal Party a mile away.”

Ah, the rumble of the tumbrils – also spelled tumbrels (the spelling I’m more used to and will go with here). Some people may not be familiar with the reference. The context suggests that she was saying their days were numbered, the writing was on the wall (and yes, that’s what she was saying, and more, but I’ll get to that in a moment). But let me head that off: how like you this word, without a thought for the moment of what it refers to?

It goes nicely with rumble, yes, and also number, and obviously tumbler (as in a lock or a drink) and probably temblor, and perhaps tendril and prehaps trouble, and lumber too. And just maybe umbrella. And the word fairly rumbles. The /t/ gives it a crisp start, but then it has that dull central vowel, prenasalized by the following /m/. And then that /mbr/ rolling into the final /l/: first resonant and building /m/, then with a bend or bounce or break at the /b/, then releasing and rolling with the forward liquid /r/, and, after a swallowed vowel, the hollow /l/ like the echo of a landslide. Yes, that’s what this word sounds like to me: an avalanche, albeit a small one perhaps.

Well, it’s not that. But it is something that rolls and rumbles. And it may roll and rumble quite innocently to an innocent purpose. But that’s not what it’s known for. Guilt by association prevails. Just as words are known by the company they keep, so, too, are their objects. And what company does – or did – a tumbrel keep? Well, eat some cake and have a sit; it may put you on edge – or put an edge on you.

Some clarity may come from this quote from my colleague Paul Cipywnyk, from a discussion on truth versus the mob in ephemeral digital data: “Is that a social-media tumbrel carrying my bits to the guillotine?”

Do you have a mental picture of a tumbrel now? It’s a two-wheeled, flat-bottomed wooden cart that is made to be tipped to the back so its load may be easily dumped. It just happens to be what was used during the French Revolution to carry the condemned to the guillotine.

And is tumbrel related to tumble? In fact, it is, and both are related to French tomber “fall” (which came to French from a Germanic root, not a Latin one).

I am tempted at this juncture to compose a sentence about a person in trouble riding a lumbering, rumbling tumbrel while holding an umbrella (to keep the head dry), knowing his or her number is up, but taking no umbrage when a temblor interrupts the drumbeat… but I think I’ll cut it short and let things fall where they may.

Thanks to Barb Adamski for making me aware of the National Post quotation. Paul Cipywnyk’s bon mot was the impetus for this tasting.

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