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Strange name! A version of the historical name, they say, of a king of pre-Roman Britain. But what does its sound suggest?

If sound is at issue, we naturally think of cymbal, which the OED carefully defines as “One of a pair of concave plates of brass or bronze, which are struck together to produce a sharp ringing sound. Also used singly and struck with a drumstick or the like. Till late in the 18th c. apparently known only as the name of ancient and foreign instruments of the type described (esp. as mentioned in the Bible).” In obedience to this last comment, Shakespeare writes in Coriolanus, “The trumpets, sackbuts, psalteries and fifes, / Tabors and cymbals [Symboles, in the First Folio] and the shouting Romans” (5.4.50). Cymbeline too is set in ancient times, although they have some modern features, and contains Roman (and Briton) clashing enough — “The noise is round about us” (4.4.1) — as well as some sweeter music. The word cymbal derives from Greek kumbē, which Liddell & Scott say is the hollow of a vessel: a drinking-cup or bowl, and also a boat. (A boat, apparently, in Sophocles, Fragment 127: “Are you voyaging to the land on horses or in boats (kumbaisi)?”) “Hollow,” by the way, is a fine hollow-sounding word which Shakespeare often uses to good effect, and it can certainly be argued that in this play seemingly solid gold reveals its hollowness.

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