What’s “Short” About “Shortening”?

Hope everyone had a delightful 3-day Labor Day weekend! I returned this morning to find this very interesting question from reader Q in my box. Speaking for myself, Q, I’ve never heard a satisfactory explanation. The one you hear the most is that shortening was given that name because it “shortens gluten strands”. As a technical matter that’s true, however the problem is that terms like shortening and “shortbread” (which is high in shortening, i.e. fat) have been used for hundreds of years, well before anyone ever knew what a gluten strand was.

Some food writers argue that “short” once meant “tender” in the English language, thus “shortening” meant “tenderizer”. I’m no linguist (I leave that sort of stuff up to Mrs. Pastry, the language Ph.D.), but I doubt that. Others say that “short” was a sort of slang for “crumbly” or even “inadequate”, as in our idiom “to come up short”. Again, I’m highly skeptical.

So allow me to advance a competing theory. Perhaps shortbread is called “shortbread” because it isn’t tall. And perhaps shortening (fat) is called “shortening” because, when added to dough, it produces breads that are, in fact, short. Or shorter than they would be without it at any rate. Our blind spot on this may simply be linguistic. We’re not used to using words like “tall” and “short” to describe something like bread. We normally talk about “high” rises, or “low” ones as the case may be.

However it’s very easy for me to imagine people in another time or place using “tall” and “short” to describe baked things. It’s certainly easier than imagining a time or place when “short” as meant “tender”. That’s just silly.

10 thoughts on “What’s “Short” About “Shortening”?”

  1. Well, this is probably not a help, but it is cool – http://webstersdictionary1828.com – Webster’s 1828 Dictionary online, and here’s the 1900 onehttp://1913.mshaffer.com/d/browse/letter,x. Somewhere I have another which goes more into derivation, but I have a new computer and not everything seems to have transferred. (One of my favorites: look up “nice;” no, we don’t want to be that.)

  2. Why on earth would you have trouble believing that the meaning of a word would change over time? This is the glory of the English language. If a teenager described your creations as “wicked” or “bad” would you be insulted? How would you feel about “nice”? A good thing, yeah? Well, not in the middle ages when it mean foolish or silly. But what do these linguists and philologists with their academic blind-spots know, eh?

    1. Oh I know they change over time. I’ve just never seen any evidence for any of these, which seem a lot more far-fetched than my explanation. Call it blogger’s bias. 😉

      – Joe

  3. I think you are correct in saying the ‘short’ in ‘shortening’ cannot come directly from anything to do with gluten strands because it is much older than knowledge about gluten strands.

    In my variety of English (British English), ‘short’ can certainly be used to describe pastry texture (i.e. as crumbly, tender, not stiff), and I never had any feeling this was limited to British English, although I could certainly be wrong there.

    The Online Etymology Dictionary’s entry for ‘shortening’ (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=shortening&allowed_in_frame=0) confirms that ‘short’ is attested 15th c. as meaning ‘easily crumbled’, ‘shorten’ as ‘make crumbly’ attested 1733, and ‘shortening’ as ‘fat’ attested 1796. So it seems fairly clear that the textural sense of ‘short’ is what gives us the word ‘shortening’ (also ‘shortcrust’, ‘shortbread’).

    What’s apparently not clear is how ‘short’ acquired the meaning of ‘easily crumbled’ from its most basic one of ‘lacking in length/height/duration’, so I suppose that’s open for speculation.

    1. Sigh. One more dearly held cockamamie theory out the window. My self image can’t take much more of these sorts of actual facts, Jo. It’s much too fragile. But thank you all the same for the excellent information!

      – Joe

    2. I always assumed that the crumbly connection was more from how extensible the dough is. Short/crumbly dough can’t be stretched, lean dough can usually be stretched quite far. (Of course, this is just to make the “gluten strand” theory make sense in my head.)

  4. Hi Joe,

    I checked the OED (the full version), which isn’t normally prone to wild etymological speculation, and it refers to what I think you’re getting at when you mention the gluten strands. However, what it says precisely is “having little length of fibre” – and that’s something that’s observable, regardless of scientific knowledge of gluten. Also, very interestingly, the first attestation refers not to the *baked* dough, but to the raw dough. We tend to use short nowadays to describe the end result, but it might well be that it was originally for the dough – so a short dough was a crumbly one that barely held together, as compared to something like a bread dough, that could very visibly become “long” (i.e. it was stretchy). Here’s the first attestation in all its late Middle English glory:

    c1430 Two Cookery Bks. 52 Þan take warme Berme, & putte al þes to-gederys, & bete hem togederys with þin hond tyl it be schort & þikke y-now.

    [“Then take [the] warm barm, and put all this together, and beat it together with your hand until it is short and thick enough.”]

    1. Hey Jen!

      That’s good stuff also. My guess is that they probably meant that the dough didn’t stretch, which is very true of fatty doughs. Thanks for the research!

      – Joe

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