The Eponyms Series – Guillotine


I always assumed that the inventor of the guillotine pronunciation here) must have been a Frenchman called Guillotine during the Revolution (1789-1799) and it would have been used on nobility only. Assumptions are dangerous things, however.

A blade beheading device invented by Dr. Antoine Louis, originally called a louisette, was used for the first time in 1792 to behead a highwayman called Pelletier. Its eventual name did come from another Frenchman – a humanitarian doctor called Joseph Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814) who argued passionately for its introdution during a debate in the French Assembly in 1789. He said that it would be more humane than the current methods of capital punishment – hanging for commoners and beheading with a sword for nobility.

But the guillotine wasn’t unique to France. Similar devices were used in Scotland, England, Germany, and other European countries, usually for noble executions.

It also wasn’t confined to the ten blood-soaked years of the Revolution when between 17,000 and 40,000 died beneath its slanted blade. The last execution by guillotine in France was in 1977.

After Guillotin’s death his children tried to rename the device, without success, and were ultimately forced to change their own surname – a wisely-rejected eponymnous connection.

As a Frenchman carrying a long ladder once said to me in Paris – “Gardez lat tete. Il y aurez une revolution!” (mind your head, we’re going to have a revolution).

Interested in eponyms? I’ve written a book about nearly 300 of them and the lives of the fascinating people who gave their name to English. “How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary” is out now in Amazon paperback (USA and UK), and ebook for Kindle, iBooks, and on Kobo.

Until next time, happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,


10 thoughts on “The Eponyms Series – Guillotine

  1. kimberlysullivan

    Those poor kids. Agreed, not exactly an invention (no matter how humane compared to the alternatives at the time – when I was a kid, I loved European medieval torture museums. Horrifying!), you want named after you…

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