23 April 2012


For this year's A-Z challenge, I'm posting juicy tidbits of researchy goodness for your interest and edification. I intend to use these as story prompts for the terrifying writing challenge Story a Day in May. You may use them however you wish.

Okay, maybe it's an obvious "U" word, but I am in love with it after researching it, so schner.

Via Daily Undertaker

The English term "undertaker" refers exclusively to funeral directors / morticians. (If this thread on the Coffin Talk forum is to be believed, "undertaker" was the preferred term before the 1930s; mortician had only a brief vogue in the late 1800s / early 1900s, and "funeral director" is currently in, though I knew a guy who called himself a mortician quite proudly.)


Originally, "undertaker" had a much more broad meaning. The Word Detective notes that in the 14th century, the word referred to someone who agreed to take responsibility for or promised to complete a task. So the term was generic: you had your public works undertaker, your cathedral building undertaker, etc. "Funeral undertaker" was a subset of the larger category of undertakers. By the late 17th century, however, presumably due to the increasing pressures of euphemism, "undertaker" had come to mean one type of undertaking, of the dealing-with-the-deceased variety.

Directionality plays a key role in determining the fate of words, as it turns out. The similar term in French, which also originally meant "one who agrees to take on a task" is "entrepreneur." "Entre" comes from the Latin term meaning "between" and "prendre" means "to take, " according to Webster's Online. Similar to "undertaker," the term "entrepreneur" was originally used like the English "undertaker," and required qualification: "entrepreneur des pompes funèbres." My French is not accomplished enough to discover if this term is still in active use beyond the job listings and college program listings a casual online search reveals, but there are also the terms "conseiller funéraire" (funeral coordinator), "porteur" (apparently a job unto itself?), which involves handling the casket and transporting it, and the fabulous, much-better-than-the-English-equivalent "thanatopracteur" (embalmer). (Here, loved ones carry the casket, so "porteur" as a profession surprised me a bit.)

Obviously, "entrepreneur" in its form as an English loan word has an entirely different set of meanings.


Likewise in Italian the parallel term has never suffered the fate of the English "undertaker." The word is "impresario," from the noun "impresa," which equally tranlsates "enterprise" or "undertaking." The phrase is "impresario di pompe funebri." "Impresa," depending on context, can mean "firm," "business," or "exploit." Impresario on its own refers to a theatre manager / producer, one who is responsible for funding and executing the theatrical season, a term originally used in the world of opera.  Thomas Hewitt Key, in his 1898 work Philological Essays, noted that the related verb, "imprendere," also has the sense "to learn," and argues that the prefix ("im") is connected, via a Greek preposition, with the particle "up."

If ever I do write a story about a funeral director, I shall feel obligated, I think, to call it "The Impresario."



Mark K said...

Grim subject matter, but nonetheless interesting indeed. For some strange reason, at the beginning of reading my mind conjured up a very string visual of fog-bound London and Sherlock Holmes?

Kyra Lennon said...

Very interesting post!

Amanda Heitler said...

There's a title of some kind in the brewing there. Lots of them in fact. How interesting.

blankenship.louise said...

(gets sucked into :D)

Cassandra said...

Love this blog, but hey I am a kind of morbid person who enjoys reading about different ways of coping with death.

Traci Kenworth said...'s the porter/undertaker/ebalmer...

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

Fascinating stuff! Thanks for sharing. And I love the idea of a story titled "The Impresario." :)

Guuye said...

Interesting. Thank you for this informative post. I love languages. Origins of words fascinate me. You have done your research, haven't you?! Thank you for visiting my blog. You still could go to Ulaanbaatar and dance to Smokie. The night clubs still play their songs including the one we like. :) I'm going this summer. You coming?

Christie Wright Wild said...

I like your plan to create story prompts. Good luck in May! Hope you visit my blog in May as I will be doing mini writing lessons on Mondays.

Mark K said...

I hate my iPad and predictive-bloody-text! *strange... NOT 'string'*