We’re almost a week into Lent—or, as you may know it, Mark Wahlberg’s 40-Day Challenge. I’ve been poking around in Eleanor Parker’s fascinating book, Winters in the World: A Journey Through the Anglo-Saxon Year, and I learned that the word Lent comes from the same Germanic word as length and long.
If you gave up coffee or chocolate or beer for Lent, this might be a lengthy forty days for you. But that’s not the real connection between Lent and length. In Anglo Saxon, lencten the word for spring—because spring is the time of year when the days start to lengthen. The forty-day period of fasting before Easter falls during this season, so lencten came to mean both “springtime” and “Lent.” In time, spring beat out lencten/lent as the name of the season, and the word Lent shrank down to mean specifically the fast-season leading up to Easter.
Something similar happened with the word hærfest, which in the Anglo-Saxon era signified the season we now call autumn or fall. As those words took primacy, hærfest became more specific, signifying not the whole season, but the activity of harvest, which is closely associated with the season.
If Lent is the run-up to Easter, the run-up to Lent is Shrovetide. Shrove comes from the Middle-English verb shriven, “to make confession.” Shrovetide, the three days before Ash Wednesday, is a time to confess your sins before you get serious about self-denial during Lent.
The noun form of shriven, by the way, is shrift. A prisoner sentenced to death would have been given the opportunity to make shrift—that is, to make a confession to a priest—before meeting his Maker. But if you’re the executioner (or the executioner’s boss) and you want to hurry things along, you might give the prisoner “short shrift,” lest he delay the process by making a leisurely and/or thorough confession. So then, “to give short shrift” is to dismiss or brush off another person’s genuine concerns or feelings.
Of course, making shrift isn’t the only way to get ready for Lent. You might prepare for this season of self-denial with a season of self-indulgence. In that case, you might not refer to the last day before Lent as “Shrove Tuesday” but as “Fat Tuesday,” or Mardi Gras. In some parts of the world, Mardi Gras is called Carnival. The first part of the word means “meat” or “flesh,” as in carnivore,* “meat-eater.” If would seem to have a double meaning: Carnival is a last chance to eat meat before the Lenten fast (which was considerably stricter in centuries past), and also a last chance to indulge the flesh more broadly defined.
According to folk etymology, Carnival comes from carne vale—Latin for “goodbye meat.” That would be fabulous. But according to etymonline.com, it more likely comes from carne (“meat”) + levare (“raise” or “remove”). During Carnival you eat meat before it is picked up and carried away from you for the duration of Lent.
All this talk about Lent made me wonder about lint, the fluff that collects in dryers and pockets and belly buttons. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon word lin, or flax. It’s the word that gave us linen. Lint originally referred to flax fibers ready for spinning, or to the fibers left over after spinning.
*Bonus carnivore-related anecdote:
I coached third- and fourth-grade softball one year. My friend Jeff named his team the Lady Commodores, in honor of Vanderbilt University’s softball team. I named my team the Lady Carnivores. It felt like a nod to my alma mater, but with added fierceness. Also, it felt like I was getting one up on Jeff. But, alas, a third-grade vegetarian on my team took exception, and we ended up being the Green Hills Bruisers, which isn’t a terrible team name, but it just wasn’t the same.