Etienne de Silhouette (1709-1767), an author and politician, became French controller general of finances in the mid-eighteenth century through the influence of Madame de Pompadour. Silhouette instituted strict reforms to help the failing economy. Everyone seemed delighted with his program, especially when he negotiated a large loan to adjust France’s fiscal position. At last someone was seizing control and turning the financial structure of France around.
The people’s enthusiasm turned when Silhouette ended the public funding of the king’s gambling losses, proposed a land tax on the estate of the nobles and the church, and ordered a cut in state pensions. Tax collectors could no longer retain for themselves a portion of their collections, and everyone, including nobility, became liable to taxation. And then he proposed to tax bachelors and luxury items. He also ordered the elimination of trouser cuffs, which created the phrase culottes de Silhouette.
This minister of finance was clearly out of sync with the ruling hierarchy. An uproar erupted that could be heard from palace to palace. The king quickly put a stop to Silhouette’s program, but the crafty finance minister then imposed a tax on «all articles of consumption». The euphoria that Silhouette had stirred in the populace a little while before was replaced with alarm. He became so exceedingly unpopular that he was forced to resign after having served for only eight months.
Etymologists believe that Silhouette’s tight-fisted, cost-cutting economic policies reminded people of shadow cut-outs, the cheapest form of art (in an art-conscious country), which they identified with his niggardliness. These profile cut-outs were long popular because they were much less expensive than a miniature painted by hand. All one needed to make them was a pair of scissors and some paper to fold. Many artists had made these black outlines on light paper, serving as modern snapshots would after the invention of photography. Some said that Silhouette made shadow portraits as a hobby and that his chateau at Brysur-Marne was decorated with them.


On April 15, 1811, in Mekong or possibly Bangesau, Siam, two boys were born joined at the waist by a short tubular cartilaginous band through which their circulatory systems functioned. Physicians said that it would be fatal to cut them apart because they shared the same liver tissue. The boys, Chang and Eng, had mirror organs in that what one had on the right side, the other had on the left, what is known scientifically as situs inversus. They could walk, even run fast, and in some ways seemed normal. They had short tempers with other people, but they were solicitous about each other’s comfort.
P. T. Barnum, the great showman, discovered the boys, sons of a Chinese father and Siamese mother, and brought them to America. He named them the Siamese Twins, and the name became generic for twins joined at birth side by side or front to back. Barnum exhibited them until they became adults. They then exhibited on their own until they acquired enough money to become farmers. This they did in North Carolina, whose legislature gave them the surname Bunker. In 1843 they married two sisters and eventually fathered twenty-two children, all physically normal. While returning from a visit to Liverpool, Chang suffered a paralytic stroke. On January 16, 1874, at their home in Mount Airy, North Carolina, Eng awakened to find that his brother had died. Three hours later, Eng was dead.
Some such twins have been surgically separated and are able to live normal lives. The key is the site of the connection.
The name Siamese twins has persisted for physically attached twins. In general usage, the expression means that two persons are so friendly that if you see one, you are bound to see the other.


George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was born in Dublin, Ireland, attended school there, but left for England to earn a living. Intensely interested in socialism, Shaw was an early member of the Socialist Fabian society. He was appointed reviewer for the Pall Mall Gazette, which enabled him to see many plays. Shaw became disgusted with what he saw and decided to write plays of better quality. He wrote five unsuccessful novels before his first play, Widower’s Houses, produced in 1892.
Despite Shaws inauspicious beginnings he rose to be the greatest literary figure of his time. He wrote Arms and the Man (1894), Man and Superman (1903), and Pygmalion (1912), for the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, on which the hit show My Fair Lady was based.
Shaw was a legend in his day. His personality, his wit, his movements — everything he said or did — received international notice.
Realizing that many adjectives would be used to describe him, Shaw decided to come up with one himself. Shawian didn’t ring well, so he Latinized his name and came up with Shavian, which has been used to refer to his style of writing ever since.
Henry Shrapnel (1761-1842), born in Bradford-on-Avon, received a commission from the British army and served as an artillery officer in Gibraltar, the West Indies, and Newfoundland. During his career he rose from the rank of lieutenant to lieutenant general.
Shrapnel began investigating hollow projectiles at age twenty-three and worked on this project for twenty-eight years, sometimes spending his own money to buy necessary materials. His first shell was used with horrendous effect in Surinam on the coast of South America to capture the Dutch possessions in Guiana in 1804. The Duke of Norfolk spoke highly of this projectile, and the Duke of Wellington used it in 1808 and later against Napoleon at Waterloo.
The shrapel shell consisted of a spherical projectile filled with a number of lead balls and a small charge of black powder set off by a time
fuse so that it would explode in midair, scattering the shot with great force over a wide area. It was considered an excellent and reliable antipersonnel weapon for offense until World War II, when it gave way to more advanced weaponry. However, the word for shell fragmentation or any explosive device came to be called shrapnel, now a generic name applied to a variety of shell explosives, whether from artillery, bomb, or mine.
Shrapnel never understood why the British government would not compensate him for his untiring and persistent work in perfecting the invention of the explosive or even to reimburse him for the personal money he spent on it. As an old soldier, he faded away, a disappointed man.


The greatest of all English writers, William Shakespeare, is the most difficult to write about because one can describe him only with superlatives. Or one can take the easy road and say he was the most renowned dramatist and poet that the world has ever known. No other writer’s plays have been performed so many times in so many countries. Nor is it easy to use the adjective Shakespearean, which correctly means «pertaining to Shakespeare» or «concerning or like the works of Shakespeare», because comparisons are heady and useless. Other than the Bible, his works have been translated into more languages than that of any book in the world.
Not very much has been documented about Shakespeare’s life. He was born in Stratford-on-Avon in the year 1564. Shakespeare’s father, John, was a fairly prosperous glove maker and dealer in wools and hides. He was mayor of the town when William was four years old. John and Mary Arden Shakespeare, had eight children, William being the third. He attended the local grammar school, but very little else is known about his childhood. After his marriage to Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior, he went to London and became an actor, meanwhile writing some plays to keep the wolf from the door. His plays were immediately popular, and he became prosperous. He bought a share of the Blackfriars Theater and the Globe Theater. The few fragmentary records extant give no real picture of Shakespeare’s activities in London. He withdrew more and more from acting and devoted much of his time to writing. During his last illness, he was at Stratford-on-Avon and revised his will with his lawyer, Francis Collins, on March 25, 1616. He made many generous provisions for friends, but kept the property together for his descendants, the children of his two daughters. Shakespeare died at age fifty-two.


William Henry Seward (1801-1872) was born in Florida, Orange County, New York. He graduated from Union College in 1820, was admitted to the bar in 1822, and practiced law in Auburn, New York. After two terms as governor (1838-1842), he took the advanced antislavery position, which helped his election to the U.S. Senate. He declared that the struggle over slavery was «an irrepressible conflict».
Seward served as secretary of state in Lincoln’s administration, but it was under President Johnson’s administration that he became convinced of the value of the Pacific Coast to the United States. The purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, which came about solely through Seward’s determination, was decried by many and mocked as «Seward’s Folly». Some even called it «Seward’s Icebox». Few had the forethought to realize the bargain that was struck. The purchase of $7.2 million amounted to 2 cents an acre.
Of course, many minds changed after gold was discovered there. And consider the $900 million bid for Alaskan oil leases in 1969.


A sequoia is a giant conifer. Of its several varieties, the redwood tree is especially well-known. These trees are the tallest living things on earth. The term sequoia was taken from the name of the Cherokee Indian who devised the Cherokee syllabic alphabet.
Sequoyah (known in English as Sequoia) lived with the Cherokee tribe in Tennessee. He was the son of a white trader named Nathaniel Gist and a Cherokee woman related to a legendary warrior, King Oconos- tota. Sequoyah’s English name from his father was George Guess, a slight change from Gist. The word sequoyah means «guessed it». Sequoyah became a silversmith and enjoyed singing and athletics. One day while hunting, he had an accident that crippled him for life. Restricted from many of his usual activities, Sequoyah looked into something that had bothered him for a long while, the «talking leaf». Sequoyah and other Indians could not understand how white people could look at paper and read. He decided that the secret of writing, this «talking leaf», was in sounds. After twelve years of work (1809 — 1821), and carefully noting the sounds uttered by the Cherokees, he came up with eighty-six characters representing all the sounds spoken. This alphabet — really a syllabary — enabled the Cherokees to publish in their own language.
The Indian chiefs were not easily convinced that the alphabet had merit and were reluctant to adopt it. The turning point came when the chiefs devised a test by having Sequoyah write a secret message on a piece of paper. They then handed the paper to Sequoyah’s little daughter, who proceeded to read aloud what had been written. The chiefs were amazed, and the Cherokee written language was born.
When Sequoyah was in his seventies, he learned that some Cherokees lived in New Mexico. He set out with a small group to find the legendary lost band of Cherokees. Whether he located his tribal Indians is not known. He died in Mexico shortly after he began his search in 1843. Sequoyah was immortalized in 1847 by having a giant conifer named for him, the sequoia, by the Hungarian botanist Stephen Endlicher (18041891).


Horace Walpole (1717-1797) coined the word serendipity, which he used in a letter addressed to a friend dated January 28, 1754, and formed from the title of a Persian fairy story, The Three Princes of Serendip. This was a happy coinage, for in their travels the princes of Serendip repeatedly discovered, by chance, rewards they were not seeking. Walpole said it just a little differently. The princes «were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of».
Serendipitous describe something obtained or characterized by lucky and unexpected «finds». The classic example, from the Bible, is the story of Saul, «who set out to find his father’s asses but instead found a kingdom».
A person who goes to Sri Lanka in search of serendipity goes to the right place. Sri Lanka was formerly called Ceylon, and before that — long before that — Serendip.


Antoine Joseph Sax (1814-1894), better known as Adolphe, was born in Dinant, Belgium. His father was a distinguished instrument maker and cabinetmaker. Of the eleven children in the family, Adolphe showed the greatest aptitude while training in his father’s shop. At an early age he evinced a talent for inventing brass instruments.
That Adolphe lived long enough to invent the saxophone is a miracle. In O Thou Improper, Thou Uncommon Noun, Willard Espy reports: «Adolphe Sax... grew up accident prone: He was struck on the head by a brick, swallowed a needle, fell down a flight of stairs, toppled onto a burning stove, and accidentally drank sulphuric acid. None of this prevented him from perfecting, in 1835, the wind instrument named after him, which contained the reed mouthpiece of a clarinet with a conical tube of metal, equipped with finger keys». His instrument was patented in 1846.
Through his association with the composer Hector Berlioz, Adolphe decided to try his luck in Paris. Sax had many influential men sounding their horn for him, but he was unable to market his instrument because suppliers of musical instruments took a dim view of this Belgian upstart. Even musicians expressed no enthusiasm; they preferred to continue with the instruments with which they were familiar. In 1844, at a show featuring musical instruments, Sax performed on his saxophone, playing a piece Berlioz had written for him. The saxophone he used had not been completely finished. Sax was so apprehensive that the instrument would fall apart that he lost his place in the music and held onto one note until he could find his place. The French were delighted with the long sound — they had never heard anything quite like that before — and they kept applauding.
In the light of that good fortune, a band using Sax’s instruments competed against a band using the common instruments of the day. Sax’s group won handily, setting the stage for Sax to become the musical supplier to the French military band. He was on his way to financial success, but although he knew how to handle musical instruments, he
had no head for business. At the age of eighty, Sax became bankrupt and slipped into oblivion, just before the sax became an important instrument in modern bands.


A poisonous plant called Herba Sardonia gave the English language the word sardonic and gave the Italian island of Sardinia its name. The island in turn gave English the word sardine, the name for a small fish of the herring family.
The dictionary defines sardonic as bitter, cynical, scornful. That which is sardonic has come to mean disdainfully or sneeringly derisive. A sardonic smile is contemptuous. Sardonic laughter, as used by Homer, is bitter, mocking laughter.
Unfavorable connotations come naturally from the namesake herb, «which renders men insane, so that the sick person seems to laugh». The acrid plant was reputed to be so very bitter as to cause convulsions that distort the face of one who eats it into a grin. But actually the twisted face reflected the throes of death.


Today’s gamblers around the world have their hunger and thirst quenched by waitresses who serve them at the gaming table so that they will not have to leave their seats. But such service was not available in the eighteenth century when John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792), an inveterate gambler, spent days on end at the casino. On one occasion, the story goes, the earl, loath to leave the gaming table, even to eat, ordered his servants to bring him two pieces of bread with a filling of meat to eat while he played. The earl did not know then that this gastronomic quickie would become the most ubiquitous and popular term on the menus of American restaurants — the sandwich — and that his name would be immortalized.
As First Lord of the Admiralty, Sandwich was responsible for preparing the British fleet for action at all times. But because his mind was on gambling and not on the ships at sea, he neglected his naval duties. Indirectly he helped the cause of the American Revolutionaries because his fleet was no longer a commanding force.
Captain James Cook, wishing to honor the earl when he was the First Lord of the Admiralty, named a group of islands in the Pacific Ocean after him, the Sandwich Islands. These are now known as the Hawaiian Islands.
In addition to serving as a noun, the word sandwich is used in other ways. It is an adjective in the phrase sandwich man, a man who parades along streets to advertise something written on the signs he’s wearing. Charles Dickens first dubbed this man, in his Sketches by Boz, calling him an «animated sandwich». The word is also a verb, as in «I thought I was getting sandwiched between those two cars».