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The History of 'Lent'

From the Middle English word for 'springtime'

March 1st of 2017 was the beginning of Lent, the period of penitence and fasting that is observed by Roman Catholics and a number of other Christian denominations for the 40 weekdays from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Consequently, Lent was one of our top lookups on this day.

The observance of Lent is meant to serve as commemoration of the suffering of Jesus Christ. The word has been in use in English in this capacity since at least the late 13th century, and also may be found used in slightly generalized fashion, to indicate a period of fasting in any religion, or to refer to a longer period observed by some Eastern Orthodox churches.

Lent comes from the Middle English word lente, meaning “springtime,” which is itself descended from the Old English lencten. Lenten remains a word in modern English, though little used, and has the meanings of “of or relating to Lent,” “suitable to Lent (meager),” and “meatless” (a lenten pie is a meatless pie).

People have been using the expression (or some variant on it) "I gave it up for Lent" in a jocular fashion for quite some while, as evidenced by a squib in Life magazine in 1884, captioned “Lent, as it is kept at Yonkers”:

Ethel: “Mamma, Willie says Birdie Kent is his girl.”
Willie (aged seven): “No, she is not.”
Ethel: “Why! Willie, you said she was, only the other day.”
Willie: “Well! I have given her up for Lent.”

For those who prefer their ecclesiastical terminology to be as polysyllabic as possible, the word Quadragesima may be used as a synonym of Lent; this word comes from the Latin quadragesimus (“fortieth”), and also refers to the first Sunday in Lent.

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