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Word Stories: silhouette
Steve Taylore-Knowles looks at the stories behind the English language.
Eponyms, names for things derived from people's names, are peppered throughout the English language, like a kind of social history of people who were important at one time or another. The word sandwich is a famous example, named after the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who (so the story goes) was so intent on gambling that he ate meat between slices of bread so that he didn't have to leave the card table. Another, imported from France, is silhouette, after Etienne de Silhouette, a finance minister during the reign of Louis XV.
Before photography was invented and became affordable, ordinary people who wanted a likeness of their loved ones had few options beyond expensive portraits. One solution, popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries, was to make silhouettes (originally called shades), usually consisting of a black outline of a person's head and shoulders. The simplest were cut from black paper, but more advanced examples involved the subject sitting between a candle and a sheet of oiled paper held by a frame. The artist could then draw the outline from life, sometimes adding shading for a 3-dimensional effect. This outline could then be reproduced in various sizes, much as we might get a photograph enlarged or reduced today.
How Etienne de Silhouette came to give his name to the art form is not entirely clear. He was himself a silhouettist, but it is also possible that it was a sarcastic reference to the short term that he spent as France's Controleur-General (Minister of Finance) – a mere eight months – or to his severe taxation policies. Interestingly, his appointment was influenced by Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV's mistress, who also gave her name to something: a hairstyle which involved pulling the hair at the front up and over a pad to give it extra height. Unfortunately, the word pompadour went the way of all fashion – into obscurity – while silhouette widened its meaning to include a dark outline against a lighter background, giving it a life beyond the technological changes that made the art form almost obsolete. I say 'almost' obsolete because a number of silhouette enthusiasts around the world keep it alive, not to mention street artists who 'take' silhouettes for tourist cash. To find out more, check out The Silhouette Parlour at http://www.edobarn.demon.co.uk/Parlour.html
Steve Taylore-Knowles has spent almost two decades in ELT as a writer, a trainer, an examiner and a teacher. He holds undergraduate and postgraduate degrees from the University of Warwick, and is a Licentiate of Trinity College, London.
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