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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Friday, February 28, 2014

Short Shrift for Shrove Tuesday

Next Tuesday, the day before the start of Lent, is what the French call Mardi gras ("Fat Tuesday"), better known in English as Pancake Day, or more liturgically, as Shrove Tuesday. If you're planning to scarf down some pancakes, you might want to check out this post about crêpes, but if you're more into penitential mortification, you might be thinking "What is a shrove, anyway?".

"Shrove" was the past tense of the Old English verb "shrive" (impose a penance on, hear someone's confession).  "Shrive", written scrífan in Anglo-Saxon, is related to the modern German word for "write", schreiben; the connection probably being that a penance was a prescribed penalty.

In preparation for the beginning of Lent, it was the custom to confess your sins, to "be shriven" so as to start the penitential period with a clean slate. The Tuesday just before Ash Wednesday was your last chance and thus came to be known as "Shrove Tuesday",  although we could have kept one of the earlier names for this day which emphasized the "beginning of fasting" aspect rather than the confessing aspect: Fastens-een, Fast-gong, and Fastingong (from "fast" + "ingang" (entrance).

Although the base verb "shrive" from which "shrove" derived lost out to "confess" (this latter word being a Jeannot-come-lately  borrowed from the French in the late 1300s), another "shrive" derivative survives, or, more precisely, was revived, in the phrase "give someone short shrift". "Shrift" was the Anglo-Saxon word for "confession"; it took its first blow from the French upstart and then really suffered as a result of the English Reformation, which abolished the practice of confession altogether as being a Catholic thing.

A "short shrift" was originally a brief space of time allowed for a criminal to make his confession before execution. It is mentioned in Shakespeare but then not again until Walter Scott used it a couple of times in his historical novels in the early 1800s. Scott loved reviving archaisms, and he was such  a popular writer that he succeeded in reinstating many such words in the English language. By the mid-1800s, "short shrift" had come to mean "brusque or dismissive treatment", and this usage took off quite rapidly.

Don't forget my weekday evening "condensed" history of the English language course starts March 24th! More info, click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2013/11/condensed-history-of-english-language.html 

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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.