Daily Archives: February 17, 2010

shrove

Just as Thanksgiving is often (especially in the US) called Turkey Day (an appellation I detest, incidentally, perhaps even more than I detest May Two-Four for Victoria Day), Shrove Tuesday is often called Pancake Tuesday. But shrove does not mean “pancake” (“Wouldja like some maple syrup on yer shrove there?”).

In some other countries, the same day – the last day before Lent – is called Fat Tuesday, but, of course, in the local language: in French, Mardi Gras. The reason is the same reason as calling it Pancake Tuesday: traditionally, one ate up all one’s remaining store of the richer foods – which includes the eggs, milk, and butter used in pancakes, and whatever other fat you may have – before starting the penitential season of Lent, forty days of giving things up. Such as, you know, fun. But shrove does not mean “fat”.

Fasting of course also meant giving up meat. Goodbye to meat! Or, in Latin, carne vale! …Which is a purported etymon of carnival (which is now also the name of a cruise line on whose ships you can eat rich foods nonstop). The point is definitely to party hearty! Woo hoo! Get porked up on pancakes (and bacon, too, I reckon, and steaks, and so on, chocolate too, for sure), and then – if you’re a Catholic, as everyone in Western Europe was (or else!) when this tradition started – you go to confession to be purged of your sins (possibly after going to a different altar to be purged of your gastronomic sins).

And what is confession, penance, and absolution? It’s shrift. That noun is formed from the verb shrive, which has as its past tense shrove. They are all related to words for writing, including the whole script and scribe family. Now, shrove does have a past participle, shriven, so you might expect that the Tuesday on which one goes to shrive would be Shriven Tuesday or Shrift Tuesday, but for some reason it has become shrove. Perhaps because shrove is easier to say with a mouth full of pancakes.

It really is a mouth-full kind of word, isn’t it? The whole thing can be said with the tongue very concave. There are some foodstuffs that have a shr connection – shrimp, shrooms, Shreddies – while other words using it can be less pleasing: shrew, shriek, shrill. The ove, which may recall eggs, gives it a bit of a resonance of shovel, which is what one does to pancakes today, into one’s mouth. And then one hovers by the griddle awaiting more.