AskDefine | Define guillotine

Dictionary Definition



1 closure imposed on the debate of specific sections of a bill [syn: closure by compartment]
2 instrument of execution that consists of a weighted blade between two vertical poles; used for beheading people v : kill by cutting the head off with a guillotine; "The French guillotined many Vietnamese while they occupied the country"

User Contributed Dictionary

see Guillotine



After Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, who proposed its use for capital punishment.


  1. A machine used for the application of capital punishment by decapitation, consisting of a tall upright frame from which is suspended a heavy diagonal-edged blade.
  2. A machine used for cutting stacks of paper to straight edges, usually by means of a hinged blade attached to a flat platform.
  3. A cloture; a motion that debate be ended and a vote taken.


  1. To execute, cut or cut short (a person, a stack of paper or a debate) by use of a guillotine.


machine used for capital punishment
machine that cuts paper

Extensive Definition

The guillotine (pronounced /ˈgijətin/ or /ˈgɪlətin/ in English; [gijɔtin] in French) was a device used for carrying out executions by decapitation. It consists of a tall upright frame from which a heavy blade is suspended. This blade is raised with a rope and then allowed to drop, severing the victim's head from his or her body. The device is noted for long being the main method of execution in France and, more particularly, for its use during the French Revolution. The guillotine also "became a part of popular culture, celebrated as the people's avenger by supporters of the Revolution and vilified as the preeminent symbol of the Terror by opponents."


The guillotine became infamous (and acquired its name) in France at the time of the French Revolution; however, guillotine-like devices, such as the Halifax Gibbet and Scottish Maiden seen on the right, existed and were used for executions in several European countries long before the French Revolution, the earliest reference to the Halifax Gibbet dating back to 1286. The first documented use of The (Irish) Maiden was in 1307 in Ireland, and there are accounts of similar devices in Italy and Switzerland dating back to the 15th century. Nevertheless, the French developed the machine further and became the first nation to use it as a standard execution method.
In August 1788 France’s High Executioner Charles-Henri Sanson, while attempting to execute a prisoner by breaking on the wheel, was assaulted by a mob who freed the prisoner, and destroyed the wheel. Sensing the growing discontent Louis XVI banned the use of the wheel. In 1791 as the French Revolution progressed, the National Assembly (at the suggestion of Assembly member Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin) sought a new method to be used on all condemned people regardless of class. Their concerns contributed to the idea that capital punishment’s purpose was the ending of life instead of the infliction of pain.
Laquiante, an officer of the Strasbourg criminal court, made a design for a beheading machine and employed Tobias Schmidt, a German engineer and harpsichord maker, to construct a prototype. Antoine Louis is also credited with the design of the prototype; however, it was Schmidt who suggested placing the blade at an oblique 45-degree angle and changing it from the curved blade.
Although Guillotin did not actually contribute to the machine’s design, it was his name that it would carry throughout history, thanks to a comic song about Guillotin and his proposal which appeared in the Royalist periodical, Actes des Apôtres, shortly after the 1791 debate

The guillotine retired

The last public guillotining was of Eugène Weidmann, who was convicted of six murders. He was beheaded on June 17 1939, outside the prison Saint-Pierre rue Georges Clémenceau 5 at Versailles, which is now the Palais de Justice. The allegedly scandalous behaviour of some of the onlookers on this occasion, and an incorrect assembly of the apparatus, as well as the fact it was secretly filmed, caused the authorities to decide that executions in the future were to take place in the prison courtyard. Jules-Henri Desfourneaux, the presiding "number one" executioner at this time was variously reported as slow, possibly drunk and indecisive, certainly a far cry from his well regarded immediate predecessor Anatole Deibler. He was also prone to arguing with his cousin and "number two" Andr%C3%A9 Obrecht which led to the latter's resignation on two separate occasions, the last involving a fist-fight between the pair after an execution.
The guillotine remained the official method of execution in France until France abolished the death penalty in 1981. The last guillotining in France was that of torture-murderer Hamida Djandoubi on September 10, 1977.

The guillotine outside France

As has been noted, there were guillotine-like devices in countries other than France before 1792. A number of countries, especially in Europe, continued to employ this method of execution into modern times.
A notable example is Germany, where the guillotine is known in German as Fallbeil ("falling axe"). It has been used in various German states since the 17th century, becoming the usual method of execution in Napoleonic times in many parts of Germany. Guillotine and firing squad were the legal methods of execution in German Empire (1871-1918) and Weimar Republic (1919-1933).
The original German guillotines resembled the French Berger 1872 model but eventually evolved into more specialised machines largely built of metal with a much heavier blade enabling shorter uprights to be used. Accompanied by a more efficient blade recovery system and the eventual removal of the tilting board (or bascule) this allowed a quicker turn-around time between executions, the victim being decapitated either face up or down depending on how the executioner predicted they would react to the sight of the machine. Those deemed likely to struggle were backed up from behind a curtain to shield their view of the device.
In 1933 Hitler had a guillotine constructed and tested. He was impressed enough to order 20 more constructed and pressed into immediate service.
The following report was written by a Dr. Beaurieux, who experimented with the head of a condemned prisoner by the name of Henri Languille, on June 28 1905:


  • Guillotine; Its Legend and Lore

External links

guillotine in Arabic: مقصلة
guillotine in Bosnian: Giljotina
guillotine in Bulgarian: Гилотина
guillotine in Catalan: Guillotina
guillotine in Czech: Gilotina
guillotine in Danish: Guillotine
guillotine in German: Guillotine
guillotine in Modern Greek (1453-): Γκιλοτίνα
guillotine in Spanish: Guillotina
guillotine in Esperanto: Gilotino
guillotine in Basque: Gillotina
guillotine in French: Guillotine
guillotine in Irish: Gilitín
guillotine in Korean: 단두대
guillotine in Hindi: गिलोटिन
guillotine in Croatian: Giljotina
guillotine in Ido: Gilotino
guillotine in Indonesian: Guillotine
guillotine in Icelandic: Fallöxi
guillotine in Italian: Ghigliottina
guillotine in Hebrew: גיליוטינה
guillotine in Hungarian: Nyaktiló
guillotine in Macedonian: Гилотина
guillotine in Dutch: Guillotine
guillotine in Japanese: ギロチン
guillotine in Norwegian: Giljotin
guillotine in Norwegian Nynorsk: Giljotin
guillotine in Polish: Gilotyna
guillotine in Portuguese: Guilhotina
guillotine in Romanian: Ghilotină
guillotine in Russian: Гильотина
guillotine in Simple English: Guillotine
guillotine in Slovak: Gilotína
guillotine in Slovenian: Giljotina
guillotine in Serbian: Гиљотина
guillotine in Finnish: Giljotiini
guillotine in Swedish: Giljotin
guillotine in Thai: กิโยติน
guillotine in Turkish: Giyotin
guillotine in Ukrainian: Ґільйотина
guillotine in Chinese: 斷頭台

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

ax, behead, beheading, block, bowstring, burn, burning, capital punishment, cloture, cloture by compartment, cross, crucifixion, crucify, death chair, death chamber, decapitate, decapitation, decollate, decollation, defenestrate, defenestration, drop, electric chair, electrocute, electrocution, execute, execution, fusillade, gallows, gallows-tree, garrote, gas chamber, gassing, gibbet, halter, hanging, head, hemlock, hemp, hempen collar, hot seat, inflict capital punishment, judicial murder, kangaroo cloture, lapidate, lapidation, lethal chamber, maiden, necktie party, noose, poisoning, put to death, rope, scaffold, shoot, shooting, stake, stem, stone, stoning, strangle, strangling, strangulation, the ax, the block, the chair, the gallows, the gas chamber, the guillotine, the hot seat, the rope, tree
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