The word guillotine - English pronunciation IPA: /'gɪ lə ,tiːn/, French pronunciation IPA: /gɪ jɔ 'tin/ - was originally the French word for the instrument which consists of a heavy blade set between two upright posts and is used for carrying out judicial executions by beheading. The guillotine is particularly associated with its use in Paris during the period of the French Revolution but it remained in use in France until the second half of the twentieth century.
However, the word guillotine has also been applied to two more beneficent instruments which, though much smaller, bear some physical resemblance to the original guillotine. It is the name of an instrument for cutting or trimming the edges of sheets of paper or other material; and of a surgical instrument used in throat operations such as tonsillectomies.
Rather differently, the word has been applied to a procedure which facilitates the passage of proposed legislation through Parliament by cutting short, i.e., setting limits to, the amount of time permitted for discussion of the various parts of a bill.
Guillotine may also be used as a verb, with senses which correspond to all the different uses of the noun distinguished above. Thus one may guillotine a person (in a judicial execution), a sheet of metal (in a workshop), the patient’s tonsils (in an operating theatre), or a proposed law (in Parliament).
- Etymological note: English imported the word guillotine from French, where its use in application to the instrument of judicial execution derives from Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814), a French doctor and politician, who in 1789 in a speech to the Estates General in Paris advocated the use of (what came to be called) the guillotine for judicial executions. Guillotin, who was opposed to capital punishment, argued for the use of the guillotine on humanitarian grounds: it was a less cruel form of execution than those then current in France, namely, (for members of the nobility) beheading with an axe or a sword or (for commoners) hanging. Guillotin, who hated the fact that the guillotine came to be so called, hoped that the adoption of a more humane way of carrying out judicial executions would pave the way for the eventual abolition of the death penalty – a hope that was not realised until nearly two centuries later with the abolition of the death penalty in France in 1981.
- Earlier forms of the device were used, for example the Halifax Gibbet (from the sixteenth century or earlier) and The Maiden of Edinburgh (built in 1564), and the Fallbeil or 'Falling axe' in many German states from the seventeenth century.