It was the day whereon both rich and poor
Are chiefly feasted with the self same dish,
Where every paunch, till it can hold no more,
Is fritter-filled, as well as heart can wish;
And every man and maid do take their turn,
And toss their pancakes up for fear they burn;
And all the kitchen doth with laughter sound,
To see the pancakes fall upon the ground.

From Pasquils Palinodia, 1619, by William Pasquil



Nowadays, if they think of Lent at all, most people in our post-Christian society will associate it with what is known in Britain and elsewhere as Pancake Day [aka Shrove Tuesday], the day before Ash Wednesday that ushers in Lent.

In the past, in different parts of Britain, the three days up to and including Shrove Tuesday were called Shrovetide, a time for letting off steam and letting one’s hair down before the enforced rigours of Lent. Stephen Roud’s fascinating The English Year tells me that it was the season of the year when, in a sort of Mary Whitehouse avant la lettre rampage, apprentices traditionally wrecked any bordellos (from Italian) in their neighbourhood:

It was the day, of all days in the year,
That unto Bacchus hath his dedication,
When mad brained prentices, that no men fear,
O’rethrow the dens of bawdy recreation. 

Pasquils Palinodia

And a jolly good thing, too, say I!
Someone more cynical than I might say a) ‘this is merely cutting off your nose to spite your face‘ or b) ‘they do protest too much, methinks.’

(Btw, note that that clause in the third line ‘that no men fear’ might trip you up. It does not mean that ‘no men fear the apprentices’, but rather that the apprentices fear no men: it tinkers with the normal SVO order of English for the sake of rhyme.)

All manner of weird and wonderful pastimes and ‘entertainments’ used to take place at Shrovetide. Fortunately, the ‘sport’ (Ha!) of cock-throwing (gentle US readers, read ‘cockerel’) was banned long ago.

However, the general nasty and brutish hurly-burly that was football before FA rules neutered its joyful testosteronic orgy was a favourite, and still lingers on, for example, in the ‘football’ played for example at Alnwick in Northumberland or Ashbourne in Derbyshire, which the millionaire ponces of modern Premier League football would no doubt despise.

What is the Shrove of Shrove Tuesday and Shrovetide?

The OED shows the first quotation for Shrovetide from c.1425 as Schroftyde. The -tide part just means ‘time’ or ‘season’, as in eventide, noontide, Eastertide, etc. The first part is undoubtedly related to the verb to shrive, past tense shrove, past participle shriven, which goes back to Old English scrífan,  meaning ‘to allot, assign, decree, adjudge, impose as a sentence, impose penance’. That word is an early borrowing into English of the Latin scrībere, ‘to write’, which is the ancestor also of modern German schreiben, ‘to write’.
To shrive can mean to hear someone’s confession or, more often, and in the passive, to make one’s confession and receive absolution, which is what traditionally happened before the Reformation in the three days leading up to Ash Wednesday: so Shrovetide is literally ‘the season for confessing’.

In Romeo and Juliet (ii. iii. 172 ), Romeo instructs the Nurse:

Bid her [Juliet] devise
Some means to come to shrift this afternoon;

And there she shall at Friar Laurence’ cell
Be shriv’d and married. Here is for thy pains.

Note the word shrift, which is the noun related to shrive, and in Romeo’s phrase to come to shrift means ‘to go to confession’. If you give someone short shrift, you are using this same word; originally, the shrift was short because it was the limited space of time given to a criminal to confess before being executed. In R & J, Shakespeare makes the verb regular, rather than using the past form shrove.

Meanwhile…, back at Pancake Day, there are pancake races, the most famous being the one at Olney, in Buckinghamshire, which, as you will see if you follow the link, has its own website.

I’ve been digressing bigly, so let’s get to the point, shall we? Words to do with pancakes.

Butter…eggs…milk…flour…water…sugar…lemon. Those are the basic ingredients of and garnish for a pancake (thanks Delia!) — the water is unusual, though.

Simple, everyday words, but ones with complex histories that illustrate why English is such a succulent concoction of so many other languages.

If we look at where those words ultimately come from–simplifying considerably–what do we discover?
butter (Greek)
eggs (Old Norse)
milk, water (Germanic)
sugar, lemon (Arabic)

And if you also use syrup, that’s another word from Arabic.

Each has a curious story to tell.

(Flour has too, but it’s a different tale: it’s a specialized spelling of flower.)

Let’s look at a couple of these words in more detail.

Fine words butter no parsnips

…but butter is essential. if not to make the pancake batter (from French, btw), at least to cook your pancakes with (I don’t recommend lard [Old French] or goose fat).

How on earth did ‘butter’ come all the way from Ancient Greece?

Like this. The Ancient Greeks seem not to have used butter for cooking, but they knew of its existence. The fifth-century (BCE) historian Herodotus wrote the earliest account, describing how “the Scythians poured the milk of mares into wooden vessels, caused it to be violently stirred or shaken by their blind slaves, and thus separated the part that arose to the surface, which they considered more valuable and more delicious than that which was collected below it”.

Hippocrates, the ‘father of medicine’, he of the Hippocratic oath, also mentioned butter several times, and prescribed it externally as a medicine. He too described the Scythians making it, and wrote that they called it βούτυρον (bouturon).

Folk etymology or loanword?

The 1888 OED entry states that this ‘Greek [word] is usually supposed to be βοῦς [bous] ox or cow + τυρός [turos] cheese, but is perhaps of Scythian or other barbarous origin.’ In other words, the derivation from Greek might be a folk etymology, and the Greek word might in fact be a loanword.

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What the Romans did with butter

Greek βούτυρον was borrowed by the Romans as butyrum. They, like the Greeks, did not use it in cooking either, but as an ointment in baths (yuck!) or for medicinal purposes, such as mixing it with honey to rub on mouth ulcers or to ease the pain suffered by teething infants.

Finally, the word reaches Britain

Old English had borrowed it at least by the year 1000 CE, when it appears in Anglo-Saxon medicine in the form butere as a remedy for swellings or boils.

English is technically a ‘West Germanic‘ language, and its cousins German, Frisian and Dutch all also borrowed the word for ‘butter’ from Latin, which is why the modern German is butter, and the Dutch boter.

Beware of Vikings bearing eggs

Another of the ingredients of current English is Old Norse words brought over by the Vikings during their incursions into the British Isles and Ireland from the late eighth century onwards.

Many of them are basic to our vocabulary: words to do with the body, such as ankle, calf, freckle, scab and skin; or basic verbs such as get, give, take and want. These words often replaced earlier Old English words, and **egg is a Norse interloper (the -loper part of which is from Dutch).

The older word was **ey, (plural eyren) derived from Old English ǣg. It seems that the two different words were used concurrently, but by people from different parts of Britain.


One of the best-known illustrations (or “iconic moments“, if you want to be kitschy) of the history of English concerns these lexical twins.

In his prologue to his translation of The boke yf Eneydos… translated oute of latyne in to frenshe, and oute of frenshe reduced in to Englysshe by me Wyllm Caxton (i.e. a paraphrase of what we know as Virgil’s Aeneid), Caxton wrote:

Loo, what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, egges or eyren? Certaynly it is harde to playse every man by cause of dyversite & chaunge of langage.

(What should a man in these days now write, egges or eyren? Certainly it is hard to please every man because of the diversity of and change in language.)

Caxton was echoing the uncertainty about how to write words at a time when English spelling was becoming a very pressing issue because of the spread of printed books. Dialects within Britain varied far more than they do today, and for Caxton it was important to choose words and spellings that would be understood by as many people as possible.

His remark follows a piquant story

Some merchants—presumably from the north of England, since one is called Sheffield—being becalmed on the Thames and unable to set sail for Holland, want to have something to eat and try to buy eggs from a woman dahn sahf (down south).

The merchants use the Norse and northern English version egges; she uses the southern version eyren. She either was unable to understand, or, like many a south-easterner even today (‘The North begins at Luton’), decided to wind up the northerner by pretending not to, ;-). She added insult to injury by taking him for that worst of all things…a Frenchman!

And that comyn Englysshe that is spoken in one shyre varyeth from a nother…and specyally he axyd after eggys. And the goode wyf answerde that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry for he also coude speke no frenshe but wold haue hadde egges and she understode hym not. And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren. Then the good wyf sayd that she understood hym wel.

(Modern English version at the end of the blog.)

What about pancake?

Simples! It’s a straightforward, Middle English combination of pan (related to German Pfanne, and perhaps also ultimately from Latin) + cake (again, like egg, from Scandinavia).

**The Old Norse is echoed in the modern Scandinavian languages: Icelandic & Norwegian egg, Swedish ägg, Danish æg; the Middle English ey(e) in modern German and Dutch ei.

In present day English:
‘And that common English that is spoken on one shire differs from another…And he asked specifically for eggs, and the good woman said that she spoke no French, and the merchant got angry for he could not speak French either, but he wanted eggs and she could not understand him. And then at last another person said that he wanted “eyren”. Then the good woman said that she understood him well.’

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