The Surprising Origin of the Word Morgue

Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Today the word morgue conjures up images of an efficient, hygienic room overseen by professionals in lab coats and rubber gloves. Most of us are familiar with its inner workings only from cop shows and crime novels, never having had the desire—or need—to visit one in real life. However, our image of the modern, sterile morgue stands in stark contrast with the room that originally gave rise to the term.

In 18th century Paris, visitors to the Grand Châtelet—a combined court, police headquarters, and prison that served as the seat of common-law jurisdiction in pre-revolutionary France—could descend to the basement basse-geôle and peer in through the grille of the door. There, they would catch a glimpse of a small room where unidentified dead bodies were displayed to the public, strewn across the bare floor. The room became informally known as la morgue, an early definition of which appears in the 1718 Dictionnaire de l’Académie: "A place at the Châtelet, where dead bodies that have been found are open to the public view, in order that they be recognized."

Print of the Grand Châtelet of Paris by Allain Manesson-Mallet,1702
Bibliothèque de l'INHA via Europeana // Public Domain

The name for this gruesome room likely had its roots in the Archaic French verb morguer, which means "to look solemnly." Historians think that such rooms had existed in Parisian prisons since the 14th century, initially as a place where newly incarcerated prisoners would be held until identified, but later to deal with the many dead bodies found on the streets or pulled from the River Seine. (In fact, there were so many bodies in the river—both murder victims and suicides—that a huge net was stretched across the river at St. Cloud to catch the bodies as they washed downstream, from which they were transported to the Grand Châtelet.) But it was not until around the turn of the 18th century that the public were invited in and asked to try and identify the dead at la morgue.

The stench emanating from the corpses at the morgue must have been unbearable, and the public exposure to the "bad humors" was one of the reasons for the creation of a new, more hygienic morgue, at the place du Marché-Neuf on the Ile-de-la-Cité in 1804. This new morgue building (by now officially known as La Morgue) was housed in a building styled like a Greek temple that was close to the river, enabling bodies to be transported there by boat. The corpses were now displayed in a purpose-built exhibit room, with plate-glass windows and plenty of natural light, allowing crowds to gather and gawk at the corpses laid out on marble slabs. Refrigeration did not come until the 1880s, so the bodies were kept cool with a constant drip of cold water, lending the cadavers a bloated appearance. The clothes of the deceased were hung from pegs next to the dead as a further aide to their identification.

Drawing of the Paris morgue circa 1845
Hippolyte Destailleur, Bibliothèque nationale de France // Public Domain

The central location of the morgue ensured a healthy traffic of people of all classes, becoming a place to see and be seen, and to catch up on the latest gossip. Its popularity as a place of spectacle grew as the 19th century progressed, stoked by being included as a must-see location in most guidebooks to Paris. On the days after a big crime had been committed, as many as 40,000 people flocked through its doors.

The morgue was also written about by luminaries such as Charles Dickens, who touched on it a number of times in his journalism, confessing in The Uncommercial Traveller (a series of sketches written between 1860-9) that it held a gruesome draw: "Whenever I am at Paris, I am dragged by invisible force into the Morgue. I never want to go there, but am always pulled there. One Christmas Day, when I would rather have been anywhere else, I was attracted in, to see an old grey man lying all alone on his cold bed, with a tap of water turned on over his grey hair, and running, drip, drip, drip, down his wretched face until it got to the corner of his mouth, where it took a turn, and made him look sly." Dickens also described the crowds of people flocking to the morgue to gawk at the latest arrivals, idly swapping speculation on causes of death and potential identities: "It was strange to see so much heat and uproar seething about one poor spare white-haired old man, so quiet for evermore."

In 1864, the morgue at the Marché-Neuf was demolished to make way for Baron Haussmann's sweeping re-modeling of Paris. The new morgue building was situated just behind Notre Dame, again in a busy public space, re-affirming its purpose as a place to view and identify dead bodies. However, it was also in this new building that the morgue moved away from pure spectacle and began to be linked with the medical identification of bodies, as well as advances in forensics and the professionalization of policing. The new morgue had an autopsy room, a small laboratory for chemical analysis, and rooms where police and administrators could inspect the bodies and record any murders or suicides. The emphasis shifted—the morgue was no longer purely dependent on the public to identify the bodies; it now had medical, administrative, and investigative officers doing that work, moving it closer to our modern idea of what a morgue is.

By the 1880s the fame of the Paris morgue, and admiration of its now-efficient administrative structures, had spread across the world. The word morgue began to be used to describe places where the dead were kept in both Britain and America, replacing the older "dead house" and becoming synonymous with mortuary. Over time, the word morgue was also adopted in American English, perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek, for rooms where newspaper or magazine archives are kept—for example, The New York Times morgue, a storehouse for historical clippings, photographs, and other reference materials related to the paper.

The Paris morgue closed its doors to the public in 1907. A combination of factors led to the decision: gradually changing public attitudes to the viewing of dead bodies, concerns over hygiene and the spread of disease, and the increasing professionalization of the police and coroners. Today, the city office that has replaced it is known as the Institut médico-légal de Paris. Meanwhile, the word morgue itself has come a long way—from its roots in a grim spectacle, it's now become a place of professionalism and respect.

Read Guy Beringer’s 1895 Essay That Coined the Term Brunch

LUNAMARINA/iStock via Getty Images
LUNAMARINA/iStock via Getty Images

In 1895, British writer Guy Beringer entreated the public to adopt a revolutionary meal that he called brunch. The word itself was, as we all know, a portmanteau of breakfast and lunch, and the idea was almost exactly the same as it is today: Rise late, gather your mates, and chat the afternoon away over a feast of breakfast and lunch fare.

He detailed all the benefits of his innovation in his essay “Brunch: A Plea,” which was published in Hunter’s Weekly. In addition to presenting a compelling case for making brunch a part of one's weekend routine, Beringer also seems like the kind of person you’d want to invite to your own Sunday gathering. For one, Beringer definitely lives to eat.

“Dinner’s the thing; the hour between seven and eight is worth all the rest put together,” Beringer wrote. “In these hurrying, worrying, and scurrying days the sweets of life are too often overlooked, and, with the sweets, the hors d'œuvre, soups, and entrées.”

Brunch, therefore, is a way to put the focus back on the food. It’s also a way to justify letting your Saturday night last into the early hours of Sunday morning, since a late first meal makes waking up early on Sunday “not only unnecessary but ridiculous.” According to Beringer, brunch should begin at 12:30 p.m., so feel free to tell your early-bird friend that the father of brunch would consider their 10:00 a.m. brunch reservation an utter travesty.

To Beringer, brunch was much more conducive to socializing than the quiet, comforting solitude of an early breakfast.

“Brunch ... is cheerful, sociable, and inciting. It is talk-compelling,” he explains. “It puts you in a good temper; it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow-beings. It sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.”

And, as for the bottomless mimosas, Bloody Marys, and overall boozy nature of brunch these days, Beringer approved of that, too.

“P.S.,” he adds, “Beer and whiskey are admitted as substitutes for tea and coffee.”

You can read his whole groundbreaking composition below.

"When one has reached a certain age, and the frivolities of youth have palled, one's best thoughts are turned in the channel of food. Man's first study is not man, but meals. Dinner is the climax of each day. You may have your chasse café afterwards, in the shape of theatre, music hall, or social gathering; but it is little more than a digestive. Dinner's the thing; the hour between seven and eight is worth all the rest put together. A parallel might be drawn between these sixty minutes and the Nuit de Cléopatre; but neither in length nor moral tendency would it be suitable to Hunter's Weekly. In these hurrying, worrying, and scurrying days the sweets of life are too often overlooked, and, with the sweets, the hors d'œuvre, soups, and entrées. To use a theatrical simile, there is a tendency to regard meals solely as the curtain raisers of the day's performances. Who has not whirlwind friends who rush in upon him, exclaiming, "Let's have a spree to night, old man! We won't bother about feeding; a chop or steak will about do us." What a pitiable frame of mind! Not that I am a gourmet. I hate the term. I regard a gourmet simply as a gourmand with a digestion. Excessive daintiness in regard to food is merely a form of effeminacy, and as such is to be deprecated. But there is a happy medium—everything good, plenty of it, variety and selection. On week days these conditions can without difficulty be fulfilled, but Sunday affords a problem for nice examination. All of us have experienced the purgatory of those Sabbatarian early dinners with their Christian beef and concomitant pie. Have we not eaten enough of them? I think so, and would suggest Brunch as a satisfactory substitute. The word Brunch is a corruption of breakfast and lunch, and the meal Brunch is one which combines the tea or coffee, marmalade and kindred features of the former institution with the more solid attributes of the latter. It begins between twelve and half-past and consists in the main of fish and one or two meat courses.

Apart altogether from animal considerations, the arguments in favor of Brunch are incontestable. In the first place it renders early rising not only unnecessary but ridiculous. You get up when the world is warm, or at least, when it is not so cold. You are, therefore, able to prolong your Saturday nights, heedless of that moral "last train"—the fear of the next morning's reaction. It leaves the station with your usual seat vacant, and many others also unoccupied. If Brunch became general it would be taken off altogether; the Conscience and Care Company, Limited, would run it at a loss. Their receipts on the other days would, however, be correspondingly increased, and they would be able to give their employés a much-needed holiday. The staff has become rather too obstinate and officious of late. That it must be a case of Brunch or morning church I am, of course, aware; but is any busy work-a-day man in a becomingly religious frame of mind after rising eight and nine o'clock on his only "off" morning? If he went to bed in good time the night before, well and good; but Saturday is Saturday, and will remain so. More especially from seven onwards. To a certain extent I am pleading for Brunch from selfish motives. The world would be kinder and more charitable if my brief were successful. To begin with, Brunch is a hospitable meal; breakfast is not. Eggs and bacon are adapted to solitude; they are consoling, but not exhilarating. They do not stimulate conversation. Brunch, on the contrary, is cheerful, sociable, and inciting. It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper; it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow-beings. It sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week. The advantages of the suggested innovation are, in short, without number, and I submit it is fully time that the old régime of Sunday breakfast made room for the "new course" of Sunday Brunch.

P.S.—Beer and whiskey are admitted as substitutes for tea and coffee."

What Happened to the Physical Copy of Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' Speech?

AFP, Getty Images
AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

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