Where Does The “Shrove” In “Shrove Tuesday” Come From?

For many Christians around the world, Shrove Tuesday is one of the most significant Tuesdays on the calendar. The rest of us are wondering: What is Shrove Tuesday? And what even is shrove, for that matter? Shrove Tuesday occurs on the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. Perhaps you’re more familiar with another name for the same date: Mardi Gras.

Regardless of whether you celebrate Shrove Tuesday or not, however, the occasion presents one cultural tradition for us all: a quick grammar lesson on a tricky word, shrive.

What does shrove mean?

Shrove is the past tense of the now obscure verb shrive. Shrive means “to impose penance on (a sinner)” or “to grant absolution to (a penitent).” It also means “to hear the confession” of a person if you’re a priest, and to “confess one’s sins” if you’re someone going to the priest. In short, shrive is all about talking it out and getting sins off of one’s chest.

Shrive was first recorded before 900 and comes from the Old English scrīfan, which itself comes from the Latin scrībere: “to write, draw.” (The words scribe and prescription also come from this root.)

Shrive is the present tense, as in I shrive and you shrive in order to have some pancakes before giving them up for Lent, or We shrive because it helps us clear our conscience. 

Shrove, on the other hand, is in the past tense, as in I shrove last week after church, or The priest shrove me yesterday in preparation for Lent. You can also use the word’s past participle form shriven, as in We have all recently shriven at our place of worship.

Conjugating shrive may not be as intuitive as a regular verb like scream or play, but shrive is far from alone in the English language in that regard.

Other irregular verbs like shrove

Shrive is an irregular verb. These verbs are ones “in which the past tense is not formed by adding the usual -ed ending.” Unlike other irregular verbs like feel (which conjugates to felt) or go (went), shrive has pretty much fallen out of regular use with just a few notable exceptions: Shrove Tuesday and short shrift—more on that last one in a bit.

Shrive’s conjugation pattern where the I becomes an O, however, can be seen elsewhere. There’s:

  • drive (drove and driven)
  • thrive (throve, thrived, and thriven)
  • strive (strove and striven)
  • and ride (rode and ridden).

The pattern is so familiar that other words have changed to fit the pattern. Case in point: dive.

Historically speaking, dived is, in fact, the regular past tense of dive, as in The dog dived into the pool for his toy. Yet in the United States and parts of Canada, dove has become such a common conjugation that it’s an accepted standard (though the past participle is always dived). The likely reason? The influence of all of the other words where the I turns to an O.

If irregular verbs boggle your mind, take a look at this article to make some standardized sense of them.

No short shrift to shrift

If you’ve ever heard about someone giving short shrift to the rules that govern our democracy or a boss who gives short shrift to employee complaints, then you’ve come across one of the other main surviving forms formed on our obscure friend shrive: shrift.

A noun ultimately formed on the verb shrive, shrift is “absolution or remission of sins granted after confession and penance.” Drift is similarly formed from drive.

Short shrift originally meant “a brief time for confession or absolution given to a condemned prisoner before his or her execution.” But over time, short shrift evolved to mean to give “little attention or consideration in dealing with a person or matter.” The original definition is directly tied to the definition of shrift.

In short, shrift (most commonly used in short shrift) is a noun that’s based on the verb shrive. Jury is still out on who should shrive to the English speaking public for drawing up the word’s various conjugations.

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