c. 1500, "without speech, not speaking," from Latin silentem (nominative silens) "still, calm, quiet," present participle of silere "be quiet or still" (see silence (n.)). The meaning "free from noise or sound" is from 1580s.
Of letters in a word, "not sounded or pronounced," c. 1600. In the looser sense of "of few words," by 1840. In reference to films without recorded sound, 1914.
The phrase strong, silent (type) is attested from 1905. Silent majority in the political sense of "mass of people whose moderate views are not publicly expressed and thus overlooked" is first attested 1955 in a British context and was used by John F. Kennedy but is most associated in U.S. with the rhetoric of the Nixon administration (1969-74).
It is time for America's silent majority to stand up for its rights, and let us remember the American majority includes every minority. America's silent majority is bewildered by irrational protest. [Spiro T. Agnew, May 9, 1969]
In Victorian use, the phrase meant "the dead" (by 1874; compare Roman use of the noun plural of "silent" to mean "the dead"). In one 14c. text, the Latin phrase meaning "one who is silent" is translated by a beere stille.
1912 (perhaps 1908), shortened form of moving picture in the cinematographic sense (1896). As an adjective from 1913. Movie star attested from 1913. Another early name for it was photoplay.
1921, of, resembling, or in the style of Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977), British-born silent movie star. The surname is attested from c. 1200, from Old French chapelain "priest."
type of musical instrument (originally a player piano popular in silent movie theaters, later a type of jukebox), 1925, named for The Wurlitzer Company, founded near Cincinnati, Ohio, 1856 by Rudolph Wurlitzer (1831-1914), Saxon immigrant to U.S. An importer at first, he started production of pianos in 1880; coin-operated pianos in 1896.
"speechless, silent," from Yiddish, from German stumm "silent, mute" (see stammer (v.)).
mid-15c., from Old French taciturnité, from Latin taciturnitatem (nominative taciturnitas) "a being or keeping silent," from taciturnus "disposed to be silent," from tacitus "silent" (see tacit).
also cliffhanger, "suspenseful situation," 1950, a transferred use from an earlier meaning "movie serial" (1937), from cliff + hang (v.). In some U.S. continued-next-week silent cinema serials in the "Perils of Pauline" days, the episode often ended with the heroine "hanging over a cliff from a fraying rope through which the villain was sawing with a dull knife, to be saved by Crane Wilbur or Milton Sills" [Collier's magazine, July 6, 1946].
c. 1600, "silent, unspoken," from French tacite and directly from Latin tacitus "that is passed over in silence, done without words, assumed as a matter of course, silent," past participle of tacere "be silent, not speak," from suffixed form of PIE root *tak- "to be silent" (source also of Gothic þahan, Old Norse þegja "to be silent," Old Norse þagna "to grow dumb," Old Saxon thagian, Old High German dagen "to be silent"). The musical instruction tacet is the 3rd person present singular of the Latin verb. Related: Tacitly.