The name croque-monsieur comes from the French verb croquer, meaning to make a noise when crunching something with one’s teeth. Monsieur is the title used in addressing a man, just as Madame is used with women and Mademoiselle is reserved for young, unmarried women. The word Monsieur also means, "a man", as in : J’ai vu un certain monsieur (I saw a certain man.)
A literal, or word-for-word translation of croque-monsieur would result in “crunchy mister”. In actuality, the name for this toasted cheese and ham sandwich is related to French manners.
Croque-monsieur entered the French language after the first World War. At that time France was changing from a quiet agricultural nation. The traditional two-hour lunch (at home) was being replaced by a quick meal. Those fortunate enough to work for a large firm or factory could eat at a company-owned cafeteria. Others, working in small offices or shops in large cities such as Paris, had to eat in a restaurant. That was when the bistro became what it is today.
Bistro, a word appearing only in the latter part of the 19th century, originally meant "wine bar". The word perhaps came from the Russian word "bistro" (meaning "quick!") or perhaps from the French word bistrouille meaning "bad booze". By the year 1918 these establishments were serving city office workers their morning coffee and croissants. When the same office workers began demanding a quick lunch, the croque-monsieur was born.
For the French population of that period, “fast food” was scandalous. It was also considered very rude to make noises while chewing food. The French author, Jules Renard (1864-1910) wrote,
"J’aimerais mieux mordre le fer d’une pioche que de manger un haricot qui croque sous la dent."
(I would rather bite into a pickaxe than eat a green bean that crunches between my teeth.)
To eat something in a hasty way is to be a glutton. With typical French discretion, such a person is not described as being greedy. Instead, it is said, “he must be hungry” (just as “you must be tired”, is a polite way of saying, “you are drunk”). Croque-monsieur, therefore, meant “hungry man” and was a slightly disparaging term for those unfortunate enough to have to eat their lunch in haste.
Today the croque-monsieur is a mainstay of the French diet. It is quite simple to make, being white sandwich bread, shredded or thinly sliced cheese, and a thin slice of ham. The sandwich is put together with the cheese against the bread and the slice of ham in the middle. The whole thing is then fried in butter, or you can stick it under the grill for a few minutes providing you butter the outside of the sandwich first.
French recipe books list this dish as croque-monsieur à la poêle, a poêle being a frying pan.
There is also another verison called croque-monsieur à la œuf à cheval which calls for serving the croque-monsieur with a fried egg on top, à cheval meaning “on horseback” to describe the position of the egg. I have seen this translated as "croque-madame".
Le Petit Robert ISBN 2-85036-186-0.
La Bonne Cuisine Française ISBN 2-263-00315-0.