A few stolen minutes out of your day to talk words and communication, because Ben Franklin and Kurt Cobain both influenced our modern English language and spelling memes deserve to be debunked. Words. Language. Human communication. Everything begins there.
Norrie Epstein once said, “The best writing advice I ever received: facts are eloquent.” Oh how much I love this statement. It’s true in conversations, in books, in journalism, and anywhere words might take you. Sometimes, these facts are world changing. Sometimes, these facts are word-changing—or, at least in how you perceive certain uses of language.
Are you ready to dive in? I have two big questions for you today.
Season 3, Episode 4: The Origin of “Silhouette” & How Do You Spell “Piecemeal” (“Peacemeal”? “Piecemail”?) Anyway?
If you’re doing something “piecemeal,” how do you spell that? And how did a silhouette portrait—a black shadow of a profile rather than a standard painted portrait—gain its name?
This is Episode 4 of Season 3 of the Words You Should Know podcast. There’s so much you should know, really. And here we go.
If a “happy meal” once made you excited as a kid, would a “peace meal” make you excited as a grown up? “Happy” is good, but “peace” is a larger group undertaking. I know it’s not that simple, but I like the idea of a “peace meal,” even if this isn’t the actual spelling of the word.
What are we actually talking about?
To do something bit by bit. To do it in pieces. First things first, the beginning of this word is “piece” not “peace.” Got it? Good. But what about the rest of it?
Piecemeal? Piecemail? Piece-what?
I know “meal” doesn’t seem logical here—there’s nothing involving food to mention, no calories and nothing Instagram-worthy—but that is the correct spelling of this word: “P-I-E-C-E-M-E-A-L.”
The truth of it is that “piecemeal” is simply a really old word, dating back to roughly 1300, and this “meal” ending that was once completely logical has transformed into something bemusing, something befuddling. But here’s what you should know.
“Piecemeal” comes from the word “piece,” as we understand it today (isn’t it awesome when there’s a not tricky part?), combined with the suffix or word ending “-meal.” But, again, let’s think past food. This old “meal” was used around the concept of measurement. For example, a “footmeal”—or fotmælum in Old English—was not a time to sit and dine on feet, it was talking about the length of a foot. Moreover, it was more than a measurement. It was understood as “foot by foot,” or a little bit at a time. Footmeal. Thus, “piecemeal” could be understood not just as a small measurement but also “piece by piece,” which would hold the same meaning for us today.
We should also add into this conversation the old word “fingermeal,” which is not a meal to be eaten with one’s fingers, but that same old use of “meal” as a measurement, as in the length of a finger.
Footmeal. Fingermeal. Piecemeal. It’s all coming together now, isn’t it?
Hopefully. At least you’ll get the spelling right, and please remember “piecemeal” is a single word. No hyphen is necessary.
We’re not talking world peace within this word. I’ve even heard interesting arguments about how maybe it’s “piecemail” related to the chainmail (also spelled “chainmaille”) a knight might have worn in the Middle Ages (the little links joining up piece by piece to make the whole). To this, I say, cool idea and very creative, but just because you can make up a story, that doesn’t mean it’s true.
Wait a moment, I’m sensing a moral here. You know I love storytellers, but there’s a time and a place for such creativity. Spreading #fakenews about etymology stories … that’s just going too far.
Do you have any word origin stories you always believed were true but then they actually weren’t? I feel you. But now is the time to get things right—to write things right—to right the wrongs by writing them right.
And speaking of origin stories, here’s one more for today.
Think of the word silhouette. What does this evoke for you? Do you have one hanging on your wall at home? Do you have one in your attic? Do you have any idea what I’m talking about?
Think of an image in a single color, usually depicting a person’s profile. Most commonly, it’s black on a white background. Are we on the same page? Okay. So why on earth is this called a “silhouette”?
It’s not quite another boycott story, with a word forever pointing to a man’s shame, but it’s not that far off really.
There was once a French finance minister, Etienne de Silhouette, who imposed strict economic restrictions during the Seven Years War (1756 – 1763). The upper classes especially didn’t appreciate the restrictions, and the name “silhouette” began to be used as a synonym for something done cheaply—not necessarily “piecemeal,” but cheaply.
When profile portraits began to be popularized—largely because these black profiles were significantly less expensive than a formal painted portrait—they became known as “silhouettes,” and the name stuck.
When we imagine silhouettes today, we don’t immediately think “cheap,” so that’s a positive for Etienne de Silhouette. However, in his day, his name was not a popular one.
The origin of “silhouette.” True story.
Facts are eloquent. What are you going to do with the truth today? How are you going to communicate it and communicate it well? Big truths. Little truths. Any truths.
I mean, I’m still holding out for that “peace meal” to complement a “happy meal.” But in the meantime, let’s work on using our words well. Perhaps today, it starts with spelling “piecemeal” correctly. Tomorrow, who knows?
Join 800+ subscribers and sign-up for my English language tips and trivia email newsletter for more articles and podcasts like this.
If you like what you’ve been hearing, don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast (via Apple Podcasts, Android, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or RSS) so you’ll never miss out on another word you should know. Many thanks to those of you who have taken the time to rate my show on iTunes or wherever you listen.
And if you’re looking for an Elements of Style for the Twitter Generation, check out my book, Get a Grip On Your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confused. Newbery-winning author Meg Medina says, “You should keep a copy on your desk.” Sounds like good advice to me!
Words. Language. Communications. You’ve got this.