Word Stories: Silhouette

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode looking at the origin of the word ‘silhouette’

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Hello and welcome. My name’s Stephen Greene and this is English with Stephen, the podcast that brings you everything you need to learn English in under 10 minutes.

Today we are going to investigate the origins of the word ‘silhouette’. Silhouette means a dark shape with little or no detail seen against a light or bright background. A similar word exists in many languages around the world and it originates from a Frenchman called Étienne de Silhouette. But before we can explain how this man gave his name to the world, we need a bit of a history lesson.

When did World War One start and end? In my history class at school, and everything I have seen or read about the subject since, I was told it started in 1914 and ended in 1918. While that might be true of that particular conflict, it wasn’t the first true world war.

An alternative date for the first world war is 1756 to 1763, or what is otherwise known as The Severn Years’ War. This war involved all of the major European powers; the British Empire, the French Empire, Prussia, Hannover, The Portuguese Empire which included Brazil and parts of India, The Spanish Empire, Austria, Russia, Sweden and later the Mughal Empire from India. During this conflict, there was fighting in Europe, North America, South America, India and other parts of Asia and many parts of Africa. While it will never be known as World War One, some historians have tried to call it World War Zero.

The Severn Year’s War was directly, or indirectly, responsible for American Independence, The French Revolution, The world’s only successful slave revolt in Haiti and the wars of independence for Spanish America, as well as much, much more.

It was also responsible for the word ‘silhouette’.

And we will look at how the Severn Years’ War contributed to this word after this short piece of music.

Regular listeners will know that this is the time I ask you to take a look at my site, EnglishwithStephen.com. On that site, you will find all sorts of good stuff, like a transcript to this episode to help you understand and learn new language. You will also find links to my social media on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Finally, you can find some of my new youtube videos, including my Two-Minute Wonders which I am really enjoying producing. So, head over to EnglishwithStephen.com, for all that and more.

Back to the origins story of ‘silhouette’.

The French were in a difficult position during the Severn Years’ War. On the one hand, they were fighting against the British at sea and around the world, but on the other hand, they also had to fight with and against the European powers on land. This was something the British avoided by focusing on their navy and empire.

War is never cheap. Weapons need to be paid for, soldiers need to eat, resources that can normally be used on farms or factories have to be diverted to fighting. Governments need to raise taxes or reduce spending, and they usually end up doing both. The King of France at this time was Louis XV, but the man who had the job of taking care of the finances was our old friend Étienne de Silhouette.

Now there are three different theories as to why Silhouette gave his name to dark shades on a bright background. It is true that as an artistic expression silhouettes were becoming popular at this time. One of the theories is that the man himself liked to create silhouettes and decorated his chateau with them. A second theory is that he was only in the position of looking after the finances for a short time, so he didn’t leave a well-defined image of himself, sort of like a silhouette.

The explanation that I like, though, is that he introduced a number of penny-pinching policies in order to save money and finance the war. While these policies did not raise a lot of money, they did annoy a lot of people, especially the rich aristocracy. Silhouette, the man, gained a reputation for being cheap and making easy policy decisions, which is like the art form of silhouettes because they are also a relatively easy and cheap way to create art.

We will probably never know the exact reason why Étienne de Silhouette’s name lives on long after the man himself has been long forgotten.

While silhouettes might be cheap and easy, they can also be a quite powerful form of expression. In recent years, they have even become very popular with street artists such as Banksy. Indeed, some of Banksy’s images have become iconic, such as the one with a young girl losing a red balloon, or a young protester throwing a bunch of flowers.

Make sure you go to the website to see some of my favourite silhouettes and feel free to post your own favourites in the comments. All of these images will be on EnglishwithStephen.com

Thanks for listening, and I hope to speak to you again soon.

Some of my favourite silhouettes. Click on the image to find out more about it.

Banksy silhouette for learning English vocabulary through etymology
Banksy silhouette

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