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.