• undertaker •
ên-dêr-tay-kêr • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. Someone who undertakes something. 2. A funeral director. 3. (Archaic) An entrepreneur or businessman.
Notes: Here is a word that has undergone semantic narrowing, from "someone who undertakes anything" to "someone who just undertakes funerals". The Oxford Dictionary lists 12 other narrow historical uses of this word before landing on "funeral director", from a book publisher to the serious undertakers of science. 'An undertaking' refers to anything undertaken, but as a mass noun, without the an, it may also refer to the undertaker's trade.
In Play: Most English-speakers use this word without giving its meaning a second thought: "Undertakers thrived in the heyday of Tombstone, Arizona." Its other meanings are generally ignored: "The open and shut cases are given to the new undertakers at the Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe law firm."
Word History: Today's Good Word is a compound verb made up of under + take. It is a "loan translation" from French entreprendre "to undertake", which is, no doubt, why some dictionaries offer the rare definition "entrepreneur, businessman". That is its narrow meaning in other Germanic languages, like Dutch ondernemen "undertake, entrepreneurship" and German Unternehmen "business venture, company". Entreprendre comprises entre "between, among" + prendre "to take". In Old English it was underniman "to accept, take upon oneself". In Middle English niman was replaced by take everywhere. (Our gratitude is due Jan Linders, a new undertaker of recommending surprising Good Words like today's.)
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