The Grammarphobia Blog

Why is a funeral director called an undertaker?

Q: Without giving it much thought, I’d often assumed an “undertaker” was called that because he took someone under the ground. But on reflection, I wonder if it comes from the fact that he undertakes something we don’t want to talk about. Am I right?

A: Yes, you’re right. The word “undertaker” (someone who undertakes a task) has been a euphemism for “funeral director” since the late 17th century. The word has had a long history and many other meanings.

The earliest published reference for “undertaker,” dating from 1382, refers to a helper or an assistant, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Over the years, the word has been used to mean a businessman, a writer, a lobbyist, a contractor, a tax collector, a scholar, and an impresario, among others.