The bells, the sound of the bells! A well-known poem by Edgar Allan Poe — which was published the year he died, 1849, but written much earlier — begins like this:
Hear the sledges with the bells —
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
He goes on to refer to “the tintinnabulation that so musically wells ... From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells”. No more apt term for the sound could be imagined.
Poe was borrowing from a number of related terms that had by then been around for several decades, such as tintinnabulary, an obscure and rather pedantic word for bell-ringing or a bell-ringer, first recorded in 1767 (it is linked to tintinnabularius, a Latin word which meant a bellman in the statutes of the University of Oxford; all such words come from Latin tinnire to ring, as also does tinnitus, the medical term for a ringing or buzzing in the ears).
It seems that tintinnabulation was known, however, before Poe’s poem was published. It appears in an unpublished American letter of 1845 and Charles Dickens employed it in Dombey and Sons in 1847: “It was drowned in the tintinnabulation of the gong, which sounding again with great fury, there was a general move towards the dining-room”.
In America, it was Poe’s poem that stimulated other people to use the word, which was moderately popular through the second half of the nineteenth century. Sadly, it doesn’t ring a bell for many people today.