Word of the Week: Vignette

Vignette (adj.) comes to English from the French (where it is spelled the same). It first started showing up in the 1750s and remains in moderate use today. I picked this word because I wrote one earlier this week. In that context, a vignette is a short written sketch providing a slice of a character or scene. But that wasn’t its earliest usage.

The most literal meaning is “little vines” and it was originally used to refer to the ornamentation at the edge of pages that often (but not always) took the forms of vine-like patterns. These designs were often used to fill blanks spaces in books and to some extent persist today.

The word was then adapted to similar elements in architecture and design. Rarely it was even applied to literal vines on trellises, balconies, columns, etc.

At some point, around century after it entered the lexicon, the meaning shifted. It’s unclear why. Photos of the head and shoulders, especially those with the edges trailing away softly, began to be referred to as vignettes and eventually so did short passages of characterization and description in text. Vignettes began to refer to brief scenes by which you would study a small piece of a character or story apart from the main plot of the work. Folk etymology may suggest that this usage became popular as these short pieces were adornment and embellishment upon the body of the work, much like their graphical predecessors. However, that’s just supposition.

Regardless, I’m going to be using the term vignette to refer to short, evocative pieces from my life. Little slices for our enjoyment to get a better taste of me.

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