undertaker

This is a word, of course, for one who undertakes – that is, one who initiates or takes charge of an action. But one may be hard pressed to understand how the word could undergo the kind of lugubrious shifting and narrowing of sense it has. The under does not come from underground; it is just a specialized use of a preposition, as we often do with others such as over, up, and out. This sense of sustaining or supporting is also present in understand and undergo. The reason it came to be associated with gaunt, black-hatted men with sepulchral voices is that they were first called funeral-undertakers – i.e., they undertook (put in action, made happen) funerals. For brevity and, no doubt, nicety (let’s not say “funeral”), that came to be shortened to undertaker. But we see the way of all euphemisms: they take on the odor of their objects. And one may suspect that association with taking people under the ground has reinforced this, even if it is not the source. The opening u is a dim beginning (if you’re thinking it’s not so different from usher, think of The Fall of the House of Usher), and the hollow, rumbling voice is called forth with the nasal and stop: und. Then you have the earthy syllabic /r/s piled up on either side of the tak (“take”) with its dry, voiceless walls and its centre the heart of grave. We may not find it enlightening that it rhymes with thundermaker, but this word does rumble like the report of the anger of Zeus… and one does not wish to mention Hades too near it. For that matter, one may well undertake not to use this word at all; its former referends are now normally called funeral directors, which, ironically, seems less lugubrious.

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