silhouette (n.)

"portrait in black showing the profile," 1798, from French silhouette, in reference to Étienne de Silhouette (1709-1767), French minister of finance in 1759. The usual reason given is that it was an inexpensive way to make a likeness of someone, and thus the name was a derisive reference to Silhouette's petty economies, unpopular among the nobility, to finance France during the Seven Years' War. But other theories refer it to Silhouette's brief tenure in office or a story that he decorated his chateau with such portraits, or:

Silhouette portraits were so called simply because they came into fashion in the year (1759) in which M. de Silhouette was minister. [A. Brachet, "An Etymological Dictionary of the French Language," transl. G.W. Kitchin, 1882]

The word was used of any sort of dark outline or shadow in profile from 1843; as "contour of a garment" by 1920. The verb is recorded from 1876, from the noun.

The family name is a Frenchified form of a Basque surname; Arnaud de Silhouette, the finance minister's father, was from Biarritz in the French Basque country; the southern Basque form of the name would be Zuloeta or Zulueta, which contains the suffix -eta "abundance of" and zulo "hole" (possibly here meaning "cave").

updated on October 27, 2022