Word Origins: M. Etienne de Silhouette and Silhouette

About the history and biography of M. Etienne de Silhouette the origin of the word silhouette.

SILHOUETTE (sil'oo'et') n. A representation of the outline of something, usually filled in with black or another solid color.

In 1757, when M. Etienne de Silhouette became controller-general, the economy of France was in a shambles. The Seven Years' War had just begun, and stringent economies were needed to finance it. Silhouette started his reforms with the farmers-general, whom he quite literally made bankrupt; he next subjected government officials to the same taxes that every-one else paid; finally, he severely reduced the pensions received by all courtiers, from dukes to mistresses.

The people applauded, and Silhouette, considering the court reformed, undertook to change the spending habits of Louis XV himself. Would it not be an excellent idea for the King to set an example of sacrifice for his subjects? Perhaps he might begin with the fund set aside specifically for the King's amusements? Louis reluctantly agreed, but he seemed so morose in the days following that the sympathetic Duc de Choiseul, Minister of Foreign Affairs, privately offered him funds from his department's budget so that the King might have some diversion. Louis accepted, and in time most of the courtiers found that their pensions, too, could be renewed by quiet agreements with various officials whose funds were still intact.

Budgets, moreover, are useful only when expenses are numerable. There still remained the "royal orders on the treasury," which concealed enormous expenditures, and which, since the advent of Madame de Pompadour as the royal favorite, had more than quadrupled. The all-encompassing "royal orders" included any number of irregular, unclassified expenses such as the King's losses at cards. It was a quagmire in which a far stronger man than Silhouette would have floundered.

Defeated by the weakness of the King and the wiles of the court, Silhouette instituted new taxes. To his credit, he tried to place the major burden on the rich rather than the poor. A form of income tax was established; domestics and servants in livery, horses, carriages, and luxuries were taxed; unmarried men were penalized by having to pay a triple capitation tax. To top it all off, the controller-general levied a 4 sous-per-livre sales tax on all "articles of consumption."

Silhouette suddenly found himself far and away the most unpopular man in Paris. The privileged classes were duly enraged, while the poor saw only as far as "4 sous per livre." Parliament protested vigorously; the King gave in and started granting dispensations right and left. Silhouette, desperate, suspended all government payments, thereby destroying all credit. When Silhouette left the ministry after 8 months, the country's finances were in infinitely greater disorder than when he had assumed the post of controller-general.

Silhouette was publicly loaded with derision. Breeches were made "`a la Silhouette"--that is, with no pockets. A new controller-general was found, but not until the old one had become forever immortalized in the popular little shadow portraits of the day, which the people scornfully associated with the incomplete career and shadowy, unsubstantial financial policies of Etienne de Silhouette.

You Are Here: Trivia-Library Home » Word Origins: People Who Became Words » Word Origins: M. Etienne de Silhouette and Silhouette
« Word Origins: Earl of Sandwich John Montagu and Sandwiches Part 2Word Origins: Rev. William Archibald Spooner and Spoonerisms »
DISCLAIMER: PLEASE READ - By printing, downloading, or using you agree to our full terms. Review the full terms at the following URL: /disclaimer.htm