PORTRAIT OF A SHADOWY WORD
In 1759, a French Treasury Chief named Étienne de Silhouette was forced to pass unpopular taxes on basically all classes, so as to help pay for the extremely costly Seven Years' War, which debatably was the first truly global conflict. Naturally, the public was very angry, and expressed it by calling all cheap or miserly things à la Silhouette. This surprisingly stuck long after his death in 1767, all the way to 1798, when darkened profiles of people emerged as the cheapest way to make portraits (this only became popular in the nineteenth century). Thus, since they were inexpensive, the portraits became known as silhouettes, a word that still exists today, obviously. Curiously, Silouette's name was likely Basque in origin, coming from a term sounding like zilhoeta or zilhoeta, with roots in the word zulo, meaning "hole". Today, usage of the word silhouette is most common in the United States and has been steady since about 1930, before when it was steadily increasing (although modern search frequency has been on the rise). So, in summary, there you have it: during the French revolution, a word once meaning "hole" became a new word for a type of painting! Etymology is amazing.
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Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic. This year, I graduated from Harvard University with a degree in Government and Linguistics. There, I co-founded the Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Society and wrote a thesis on Serbo-Croatian language policy, magna cum laude. In addition to etymology, I also really enjoy trivia, politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, art history, and law.