Word of the Day


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1. the dark shape or shadow of something, especially something that you cannot see clearly

2. an image or drawing showing only the shape of something

Origin and usage

The noun silhouette comes from the name of an 18th-century French author and politician, Étienne de Silhouette. Although de Silhouette gave his name to the word silhouette, making it an eponym, the connection between the historical figure and the word’s original meaning, number 2 above, is not clear. Silhouette was first used in English at the end of the 18th century to refer to a dark image that shows only the shape of something. The first meaning above came later, in the mid 19th century, followed later in that century by the verb, which is generally used in the past participle form as an adjective.


The heyday of the silhouette as a means of portraiture was in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Although silhouettes can be painted or drawn, the most popular method was to cut them out of dark paper and mount them on a pale background. The popularity of this method was due partly to the fact that it was both cheap and very quick, unlike painted portraits which took much longer and were therefore more expensive.  Most silhouette portraits show the subject in profile, because it was discovered early on that it is much easier to make a recognizable image of a person by showing them in profile rather than full face.


“Actually, I do happen to resemble a hallucination. Kindly note my silhouette in the moonlight.” The cat climbed into the shaft of moonlight and wanted to keep talking but was asked to be quiet.
(Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita)

Related words

form, profile, shape

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

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