What Does Crèche Mean?

I pity anybody who has had to learn English as second (or third or fifth) language. It’s a confusing language to begin with, the regional differences are sometimes staggering (or downright opposing).

Take the word crèche, for example. I was introduced to the term when I lived in Ireland, where I learned that it referred to a daycare or nursery. When I subsequently lived in Malta, I heard the Maltese use crèche to refer to nativity scenes. Being the most Catholic country outside of the Vatican, they took their Christmas dioramas very seriously. Some of the crèches were sprawling, baroque affairs. Here’s part of one, with its creator for, uh, scale:

Maltese Creche (Plus Creche Owner)

Here’s a little slide show with more photos.

I’m currently reading the witty Septic’s Companion, “a mercifully brief guide to British culture and language”. It’s written by Chris Rae. He kindly sent me a copy as a thank you for linking to his website a bajillion years ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the Internet.

Here’s his entry on creche (he omits the accent):

creche: n day-care. The place you take your children to be looked after, usually while you bumble off and make the money you’ll need to pay for it. The Brits do not use the word to describe a the revolting Christian Christmas scene that your child brought home from school and you’re not sure where to jettison (see “nativity”).

I found that puzzling. For who would the Maltese learn the word crèche from if not the English? What’s the word’s etymology?

“Christmas manger scene,” 1792, from Fr. crèche, from O.Fr. cresche, ult. from O.H.G. kripja, from the root of crib. Also “a public nursery for infants where they are cared for while their mothers are at work” (1854).

Huh. Maybe they learned the word from the French? At least the two meanings–nativity and nursery–have vaguely similar meanings. Another example from Chris’s book is “momentarily”. He says that in the UK, it means “for a moment” and in the US it means “in a moment”. In Canada, I feel like I hear both cases used all the time.

By the way, I’d heartily recommend Chris’s book to Anglophiles everywhere. I particularly liked this bit about the Royal Family:

The Royal Family has three main functions in modern Britain. The first is to invoke antagonism amongst the chattering classes about what the bloody Royal Family ever does for anyone. Bloody social leeches. The second is to provide the tourist industry with ceremonial events, tea towels, commemorative spoons, postcards and other overpriced memorabilia which will be snapped up by enthusiastic tourists and displayed in homes all over the modern world. Their third is to generate C-grade scandal for the chattering classes by having sex with supermodels, smoking pot or making obliquely racist comments on television. Elizabeth II’s son, Charles, was hampered by his looks from humping any supermodels and prevented by his personality from scoring weed, although his children, Princes William and Harry, are considerably better looking and attempting to make amends. Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip, is a much more enthusiastic scandalmonger and is famous for asking an Australian aborigine whether they still threw spears at each other, and telling British students in China that ―if you stay here much longer, you’ll get all slitty-eyed.


  1. You were surprised that crèche originates in French?

    It makes sense that for most of the English-speaking world it’s a borrowed French word for “manger scene” (the only meaning I’ve ever known for it), while the British Isles usage for “daycare” is a local adaptation — and I’d guess a fairly recent one, since it isn’t widespread.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if the U.K. “daycare” meaning is only a few decades old, in fact.

    1. I was more surprised that the Maltese would have borrowed the French meaning as opposed to the British one.

    2. As I noted, my guess is that the Maltese might have gotten the original meaning (whether from the British, the French, or someone else), and the British developed the “daycare” version long afterwards, since daycares in their current sense are a pretty modern invention. Certainly newer than Malta.

  2. French in origin (aka probably Latin in origin). Nativity/manger scene in the Christmas context, nursery/pre-school in the school context. Daycare would probably be “garderie”. This is usage in France.

  3. In the old days crèche was the French word for manger now we say mangeoire. Like the word manger in English we use the word crèche also for the nativity scene since, I suppose, that’s where Jesus was put after he was born. From there, the word crèche was use by French to talk about the place where they put their babies: the day care center. Don’t talk to them about garderie they are going to look at you like an alien with 6 arms, they don’t use that word. The world garderie is only use in Quebec where crèche was until the 60’s, the place where parents used to put their baby for adoption, an orphanage for babies if you want. So crèche is a place where you put food for animal or where you put a baby.

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