This term, from the Latin terrere, “to frighten,” was first applied to the Jacobins and others like them who organized the Reign of Terror in the wake of the French Revolution. The guillotine was the chief instrument of execution for those found guilty of plotting against the new republican government, and among its victims were Louis XVI and his Austrian wife, Marie Antoinette. The flow of blood was at its greatest from the summer of 1793 (Louis and his wife had been dispatched the previous January) until the summer of 1794, during which time an estimated forty thousand persons lost their lives.
But the popular notion that French aristocrats were the chief recipients of the guillotine blade simply is not true. In A History of the Modern World, R.R. Palmer and Joel Colton set the record straight: “The Terror showed no respect for, or interest in, the class origins of its victims. About eight per cent were nobles, but the nobles as a class were not molested unless suspected of political agitation.
Fourteen per cent of the victims were classifiable as bourgeois, mainly of the rebellious southern cities. Six per cent were clergy, while no less than seventy per cent were of the peasant and labouring classes.”
The terror struck fear in the hearts of French citizens from the English Channel to the Riviera. Butchery in the name of politics became the order of the day as one atrocity followed another. And not all victims were beheaded: at Nantes, for example, two thousand hapless souls were loaded onto barges and deliberately drowned.
Source: 500 Years of new words By Bill Sherk