We all know what a silhouette is — but do you also know the origin of the word?
Silhouette originally referred to a style of portraiture popular in the mid 18th century, that depicted a person — usually in profile — as a solid shape. When done well, the subjects of these simple representations were clearly recognizable.
So you might think that the word silhouette means something in relation to this art form. But you’d be wrong.
Étienne de Silhouette (1709 – 1767) was a French nobleman who briefly served as Controller-General of Finances under Louis XV. It is commonly believed that his attempts to bring the nation’s finances under control earned him a reputation for penny-pinching.
The term à la Silhouette came to mean things that were seen as cheap — like the shadow profiles which were much less expensive to produce than traditional painted or drawn portraits.
Over time, the word has taken on a much wider meaning and now refers to pretty much anything that is backlit and appears as a dark undifferentiated shape on a lighter background.