(Image credit: John-Patrick Thomas)
Certain professions have a built-in PR problem. People don’t like to think about what janitors or garbage collectors do, so they substitute bland job titles with euphemisms like custodial technician and waste management engineer. Not that these titles are fooling anyone. We scoff and roll our eyes at mixologist (bartender), scooping technician (dog walker), and dynamic optimization analyst (who knows?). But another term got its start the same way, and we hardly notice it anymore: the word mortician.
It has a fancy, classical Latin feel to it, right? In 1895, when it was first proposed in the trade magazine The Embalmers’ Monthly, members of the newly burgeoning funeral director profession thought so too. It was more customer-friendly than undertaker, which originally referred to the contractor who undertakes all the funeral arrangements, but had become tarnished by its centuries-old association with, well, death.
During the Civil War, the practice of embalming became widespread. Before that, the technique had been mostly used in medical schools to preserve cadavers for research. But after President Lincoln’s body was embalmed for his 13-day funeral procession from D.C. to Illinois, it became a general funeral custom, and thus, an increasingly professionalized commercial industry.
The practitioners wanted to distinguish themselves from the undertakers of the past, and they needed a new name. So Embalmers’ Monthly put out a call for suggestions. The next month they declared mortician the winner: It elegantly combined the Latin root for death, mort-, with physician, referencing embalming’s scientific, high-status connection with the medical profession. Of course, everyone except the morticians hated it.
Decades later, critics were still calling the word “ugly,” “affected,” and an “atrocity” of euphemism. Mortician was an “uncouth stranger” and a “pseudo-Latinism of dubious currency.” The Chicago Tribune banned it, and “not for lack of sympathy with the ambition of undertakers to be well regarded but because of it. If they haven’t the sense to save themselves from their own lexicographers, we shall not be guilty of abetting them in their folly.”
Mortician seemed inflated and ridiculous; worse, it violated rules of word formation. Until mortician, there was no –ician word ending. Physician came from physic + ian, mathematician from mathematic + ian. Obstetrician, electrician, optician, statistician—all those prestigious words had a word ending in –ic as a base. What was mortics? There was no such thing. Mortician was an impostor.
Yet mortician refused to fade away or kick the bucket. Not only did the word stick around until people forgot it was once one of those pretentious made-up job titles, it gave life to the use of –ician as an ending of its own. Many of the titles created in the wake of mortician didn’t last long—there was bootician (bootlegger), boozician (a drunk), shoetrician (shoe repairer), fizzician (soda jerk), radiotrician (radio repairer), and other jokey coinages. But one of them is still with us today: beautician. It makes sense. What the beautician enhances in life, the mortician preserves in death. And what is mortician if not a long-lived makeover for undertaker?
The article above, by Arika Orent, appeared in the October 2015 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.