The Man Who Unwittingly Lent His Name to the Guillotine

The guillotine was named after a French physician named Guillotin who lived during the French Revolution and opposed the death penalty. Find out how his family tried to fight back and what they did when they lost.

Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read


When I was at the Tower of London, which I described in last week’s show, we took the beefeater tour and our guide spent a lot of time talking about all the beheadings that took place on and near the grounds, and describing them in gruesome details. Beheadings were not very efficient in the High Middle Ages, and our tour guide said that often rich prisoners would pay the executioner beforehand in the hope of getting a clean blow.

Thinking about beheadings, I remembered that the guillotine was named after a French physician, Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin. That’s where we get the word: from his name. He didn’t actually invent the device for lopping off heads, it had been in use around the world since the Middle Ages, but he did lobby for it to be the execution method of choice in the late 1700s during the French Revolution. 

Guillotin was opposed to the death penalty, but at the time, the nobility were being beheaded with swords or axes, which was gruesome and sometimes slow, and the peasants were being hanged. Guillotin thought that if people were going to be executed, everyone should be executed the same way and it should be more humane. So he proposed that executions should be done with a “machine that beheads painlessly," and a couple of years later, the guillotine was in use and his name had been permanently attached to the device. 

Here’s a great quotation from Victor Hugo, the author of Les Misérables who lived slightly after the French Revolution:

“There are unfortunate men. Columbus could not attach his name to his discovery and Guillotin could not detach his from his invention.”

Of course, Gullotin didn’t invent the guillotine, he just lobbied for its adoption.

In fact, the Guillotin family was not happy to be associated with this mechanism of death, and petitioned the government to change the name of the device. When the government refused, the family changed its name. I could not find a source that included their new name, and they probably wanted it that way, but if you know what it is, please leave a comment.


Sorel, N.C. Word People. 1970. American Heritage Press: New York. p.119-24.

Mariott, M. They Got It Wrong: All the Facts That Turned Out to be Myths. 2013. Penguin. http://bit.ly/1k7EnuM (accessed July 29, 2014).

Jack. A. It's a Wonderful Word: The Real Origins of Our Favourite Words. 2011. Random House. http://bit.ly/XfJVcp (accessed July 29, 2014).

Wikipedia Editors. "Joseph-Ignace Guillotin." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph-Ignace_Guillotin (accessed July 29, 2014).

Wikipedia Editors. "Guillotine." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guillotine (accessed July 29, 2014).

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.