When it comes to the crunch....

In my French conversation class at the AVF (the wonderful volunteer-run welcome association I've mentioned before), we read and then discuss a magazine article or other piece of writing in French. This week the leader (animatrice) brought in song lyrics by French singer-songwriters Jacques Brel, Barbara, and Georges Brassens.  "Chanson pour L'Auvergnat" (Brassens) is addressed to three people in turn, each of whom helped the singer in a time of need: a person from the (famously stingy) Auvergne, a Hostess (I'm not sure what sort!), and a Foreigner. Each stanza ends with the refrain:  .....quand tu mourras, quand le croque-mort t'emportera / Qu'il te conduise, à travers ciel, au Père eternel. *

Croque-mort? I know croque-monsieur and even croque-madame, but croque-mort? It turns out to mean undertaker, person in charge of what the French call les pompes funèbres, but why? Croquer is usually "to crunch" or "bite" and of course mort is "death." Croquant is "crunchy" or "hard to the bite. (Actually a croque-monsieur (toasted ham and cheese sandwich) isn't necessarily crunchy, even less so croque-madame (with an added egg on top) but that's another story.)

As I think I've said before, I don't yet possess an etymological French dictionary, so I had recourse to the internet, and learnt there are three possible origins for croque-mort (actually the Academie Française said in 1990 it should be spelt croquemort, so that's what I'll do henceforth): It could come from an old French meaning of croquer, "to make disappear," so the croquemort makes Death disappear, takes the body away. Or it could come from the times of plague, when undertakers avoided touching infected corpses by using a croc or crochet, a big hook, which in time became croque. And a third possibility is that it comes from a custom of cracking (croquer) or twisting a corpse's big toe to make sure, from the reaction or lack thereof, that the person was really dead.

What I'm not sure about is the register of this word, the tone--it sounds ghastly and flippant to the non-French speaker, aware of the separate parts of the word rather than its total meaning. Surely it's not something to be used in the context of a real death? I have the impression it may have lost its original resonance in French....but to be safe, I'll stick with fonctionnaire des pompes funèbres. Though I hope I will not have occasion to need this phrase.

To add to the confusion, croquer can mean other things besides "crunch:" it can be slang for "to eat"--apparently the kids say "j'ai croqué," I've eaten; or it can mean "to sketch;" or even "to squander." And more. And in the same Brassens song, there's a reference to les croquantes et les croquants who didn't help him; croquant/e is country bumpkin, yokel, peasant.

For the crunchy, piquant wonder of language, I'll always have an appetite.

*When you die, when the undertaker carries you away, May he take you through the sky to the eternal Father.