I had never run into this phrase before encountering it, in a story from my course Reading Science Fiction and Fantasy. A student who pays close attention to new words–take heart, there are some!–pointed out the term and we talked about how it functions in the story.
In short, an eminence grise works quietly and decisively behind the scenes rather than serving as a public face for important events. We have a precise origin for our term, in the person of François Leclerc du Tremblay, a monk of the early 17th Century who advised Cardinal Richelieu. Our image, a painting from 1873, shows the respect (and likely fear) this publicly quiet man evoked among powerful French clergy and nobility. Though never a Cardinal (and thus worthy of “Your Eminence”) Tremblay was given that honorific, paired with his gray robes, we get our term.
One rarely sees our phrase, with a usage frequency of 2 (of 8) in the OED editors’ estimation. That’s “0.01 times per million words in typical modern English usage,” so I stand unsurprised that I’ve not met the term before.
“Power behind the throne” comes to mind as a possible synonum here, yet some of these figures have been very public. Another possibility is the word “Svengali,” worth a look in a future post.
Look at any circle of the powerful and influential and you’ll find an eminence grise, sometimes quietly working for good, often not. As usual these days, I asked ChatGPT if something like it might become an eminent grise. Here’s the response:
While it is possible for AI like myself to assist famous and influential individuals in various ways, it is unlikely that AI would become an eminent grise in the traditional sense.
This is because AI is designed to assist humans in performing specific tasks, such as generating text or making predictions based on data. While AI can be very helpful in many contexts, it lacks the complex decision-making abilities and nuanced understanding of human behavior that are often required to wield significant influence behind the scenes.
Would that more of my students wrote a first draft that well, and would that influencers (who do not act behind the scenes) possessed that level of humility.
Nominate a word students need to learn by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.