French Word of the Day: Croque-mort

The word croque-mort may be one of the most off-putting in the French language, and no one seems to agree on its origins. Since its case is yet to be settled, here is everything you need to know to choose your side.

French Word of the Day: Croque-mort

What do I need to know croque-mort?

Being a croque-mort is a job like any other else and you may have to call upon one someday. Behind this ill-omened term, stories on how it was born continue to have French people debating.

So what does it mean?

A croque-mort is another word for employé des pompes funèbres – undertaker, or literally translating to 'dead-biter'. Il est croque-mort, ça doit être déprimant comme métier. – He is an undertaker; it must be such a depressing job.

The term is slightly casual, so if you were talking to someone recently bereaved about funeral arrangements it might be better to use the more formal employé des pompes funèbres, but you won't insult someone if you use this to describe their work.

The most commonly spread legend on the origin of the word is also regarded as the least accurate of all. 

A long time ago – possibly starting from the Middle Ages but no one knows for sure – undertakers supposedly had to bite the dead person's big toe to make sure they really were deceased. If there was no reaction, then the person could be buried.

Other possible origins

While this quirky story is very popular among the French, two more plausible explanations have surfaced.

During the plague epidemics of the Middle Ages, survivors would use un croc de boucher – a meat hook – to drag bodies towards mass graves. The ending c is usually silent, but if pronounced, croc will sound like croque. This could have easily led to the creation of a word such as croque-mort.

Even the Académie Française, acting as the official guardian of the French language, has its take on the subject. According to the official body, the misunderstanding comes from the double meaning of the verb croquer.

Though little used in this sense, croquer can also mean 'steal' or 'make something disappear'. Sa soeur a croqué tout l'héritage! – Her sister stole the entire inheritance!

The word croque-mort would then simply take its origins on the image of someone 'stealing' people in the fashion of the Reaper, or making them disappear by burying them.

For more French words or expressions, head to our French word of the day section.


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French Word of the Day: Bordéliser

This French expression is not the kindest, but it will certainly get your point across.

French Word of the Day: Bordéliser

Why do I need to know bordéliser?

Because when things feel chaotic, you might want to use this word.

What does it mean?

Bordéliser roughly pronounced bore-del-ee-zay – comes from the swear word “bordel” which means brothel.

In popular usage, bordel is used to describe a mess or a chaotic environment, and bordéliser turns the bordel into a verb – meaning to make or create disorder, disaster or chaos. 

During periods of unrest in France, you may hear people blame one group for causing the problem by using this expression. Keep in mind that bordéliser is not polite language – the English equivalent might be to “fuck (or screw) something up”.

One popular theory says that the root word bordel comes from medieval French – at the time, sex workers were explicitly not allowed to work near the ports, so they were relegated to wooden huts or small houses – or bordes, in French –  away from the city.

You may also hear another French expression that uses the same root word: “c’est le bordel”. 

This literally translates to “it’s a brothel” but it is used to describe a situation that’s untidy, messy or chaotic, both literally and figuratively as in  ‘what a bloody mess!’ or ‘it’s mayhem!’ or ‘what a disaster!’

Use it like this

Le militant accuse le gouvernement de bordéliser le pays avec sa réforme impopulaire. – The activist accuses the government of “fucking up” the country with its unpopular reform.

Tu as bordélisé l’appartement et notre dynamique de colocation en achetant le singe comme animal de compagnie. Qu’est-ce qui t’a pris ? – You have screwed up the apartment and our roommate dynamic by buying the monkey as a pet. What were you thinking?