Monday, June 18, 2012


This word is used to indicate an outline, and originates from 18th century France. 

Silhouette of Jane Austen
Etienne de Silhouette (1709-67) was the protégé of Madame de Pompadour, who was the mistress of Louis XV. Pompadour managed to secure Silhouette’s appointment as the Finance Minister of France in 1759. Due to the ravages of the Seven Years War (1756-63), Silhouette was tasked with securing funds to rebuild the French Army. His plan involved the implementation of new taxes on the nobility, which amounted to a luxury tax. Unfortunately, Silhouette’s new taxes were not popular with the nobility of France and he was soon forced into retirement within months.

After this incident, anything done on the cheap was said in France to be à la silhouette. This included the new popular black-profile portraits that were becoming very popular in France.

This should be a lesson to anyone doing something that might end up having his or her name attached to it. For poor Silhouette, he is now synonymous with anything cheap.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Big Stink

We use this phrase today in reference to a major scandal or uproar. It is usually used when referring to political scandals, although, this phrase had a more literal use.

The Big Stink
The Big Stink occurred in London in the summer of 1858 when the smell of untreated human waste permeated the city air. Just before 1858, the introduction of flush toilets increased the use of sewers, which before only carried runoff rain water. The increase of human waste in the Thames River and the unusually hot summer increased the smell in the city. Originally, the city had cesspits to deal with waste, but the cost of a shilling often meant that people could not afford to empty the cesspits.

The Big Stink caused a great political scandal in London and pushed for new sewers to be built. This is why we call political scandals a big stink because originally it was. Thankfully political scandals today are not accompanied by a foul odour, at least most of the time.  

Thank you Brendan for suggesting this phrase.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Dressed to the nines

We use this phrase to denote someone who is elegantly dressed. It generally indicates wearing clothing of fine quality or can refer to someone who is just dressed smartly.

99th Regiment of Foot
It appears that the ‘to the nines’ part of the phrase is in reference to scale. Since one cannot obtain absolute perfection, nine appears to be the best. As well, nine is the highest single digit and perhaps this is why it symbolizes perfection. The origin of this phrase is difficult, as are many phrases that involve the word nine. Some claim that it refers to tailors who would use nine yards of material to make a suit. Others say it refers to the 99th Regiment of Foot for their sharply dressed uniforms. However, the term predates these examples.

One of the first written accounts of ‘to the nines’ comes from William Hamilton's Epistle to Ramsay, 1719:

The bonny Lines therein thou sent me,
How to the nines they did content me.

It appears that the term began in the 1700s, but no one knows the origin of this phrase. All I know is that if you have something important to attend, just make sure you are dressed to the nines.

Thank you Alexandra for suggesting this phrase.