Jewish World Review Oct. 20 2003 / 24 Tishrei, 5764
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
Who was the person the artist who first used "silhouette" as an art form?; why are they called migraine headaches?; origin of "keep one's shirt on"
I've heard that the word "silhouette" comes from the name of a real person. Was this person the artist who first used outlines as an art form?
K.S., Gaithersburg, Md.
"Silhouette" does, indeed, come from the name of a person, but he wasn't an artist in the accepted sense of the word. Rather, Etienne de Silhouette (who died in 1767) was the French controller of finances for a short time in the 18th century, and a notable cheapskate. When he was first appointed to his office, he enjoyed the complete confidence of the court, but he quickly fell out of favor when the nature of his financial policies became apparent. So stingy was he with the state's money, and his own, that "a la Silhouette" came to mean "on the cheap" for a time. He demanded great sacrifices on the part of the nobility and enforced them by the imposition of new taxes and the reduction of pensions, thus alienating both the upper and middle classes.
No one knows exactly why the name "Silhouette" came to be used for the familiar outline drawings. The usual explanation is that the name was meant to reflect the fact that such drawings are as stingy with details as Silhouette was with money. It has even been suggested that one of his economies was the decoration of his house with these outlines, which he made as a hobby, rather than more expensive paintings. Another theory is that the brevity of his time in office may have inspired the coinage. This tightfisted bureaucrat was forced to leave his office less than a year after he had entered it, but an outline is still, in French and in English, a "silhouette."
I suffer from migraine headaches. Can you tell me why they are called by that name?
L.P., Fayetteville, Ark.
The "migraine" story starts with the Greek noun "kranion," meaning "skull," which gave rise straightforwardly, via Latin transmission, to our English word "cranium." "Kranion" also entered English in phonetic disguise by a more roundabout route. Using the prefix "hemi-," meaning "half," (familiar to us from such borrowings as "hemisphere"), Greek formed "hemikrania" to denote a pain on one side of the head, and this entered Late Latin as "hemicrania." Old French dropped the "he-" and took up the word as "migraigne" or "migraine," using it sometimes in the original "headache" sense and sometimes in an extended sense of "spite" or "foul mood." English borrowed the word (in a variety of spellings) around 1400.
In modern English, "migraine" is still used, mostly literally, for a severe, often unilateral (one-sided) headache. An old variant spelling, "megrim" (pronounced "mee-grum"), has become established as a distinct word, occurring both as an uncommon synonym of "migraine" and, in its plural form "megrims," as an old-fashioned word for "low spirits." "Megrims" is not a word you'll often see, but our files do contain a recent magazine article in which a country kitchen's larder is said to include "jars full of fruits, pickles, jams, and jellies to stave off the megrims of those twenty-below-zero nights."
I am very interested in finding out the origin of "keep one's shirt on." I use it with my granddaughter a lot, and her father asked me where it came from. R.G., Barre, Vt.
"Keep one's shirt on," meaning "to remain calm," is an Americanism that first appeared in the mid-19th century. Exactly how it originated isn't known, but we can speculate that it was meant to call to mind the image of angry men, preparing to fight, who first removed their shirts before letting the fists fly. "Keep your shirt on" was an admonition from someone who either didn't want to fight or found it unnecessary because the argument could be settled calmly and rationally. Today, the expression is generally used as a reproof for any type of restlessness of temper, from impatience to outright anger.
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